CdBaby — http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/jeffbinkley
Was there a clear moment when you knew you wanted to play music for a living?
I don’t remember a particular moment… I just always knew that was what I wanted to do. Still, it was only in a vague way. It wasn’t any more focused than just playing guitar.
Even when I went to college I was fairly unfocused about the whole thing. It’s not like I was thinking about my future. It was a good thing to go to college, so I did. It took me three schools and seven years to get through but I did. This wasn’t exactly the career track plan… and I wound up majoring in history. I wasn’t even a music major, though I did take more classes in music than anything else.
So, how did I get started? There was a guitar lying around, I loved the music I heard on the radio, and I wanted to try to do it.
There was a lot of listening to records, trying to figure out the guitar parts, and it would literally be, “What’s the first note? Ok, I got that one.” Then I would pick up the needle, put it back, and listen again for the second note. Then I’d string them together the best I could. I wore out a lot of records and needles.
It probably would have been a lot easier for someone to show me how it went, but I didn’t do it that way.
Do you think you benefitted from all the extra effort — from learning the hard way?
I don’t know if it’s better or not… it would be presumptuous for me to say that. I guess everybody learns different ways, but I did have to work at it. I think it’s good for your ear and that’s probably unarguable. I can read music, so I can learn something that way, but I can also use my ear.
You’ve probably run across those people who ask if you play by ear or play by note. “Yes,” is the answer. If you know how to read music, does that mean you don’t have a good ear? It doesn’t mean that. They’re both useful.
And now you’re better prepared for any situation.
You’ve probably heard the expression, “I know how to read music, but not enough to hurt my playing.” That’s silly to me. If you’re letting reading music hurt your playing, then you’re a dummy. It’s just a tool.
There are great musicians who don’t improvise. I just learned the other day that Yo Yo Ma doesn’t improvise. He’s a brilliant cellist. He gets magic out of the instrument. But he doesn’t improvise at all. I was a little surprised by that, but it doesn’t make any difference. He’s still a great musician. If I had my choice, I like being able to improvise as well. Just more tools in your toolkit.
How has your approach to practice developed, or changed, over the years? How do you approach it now, as opposed to earlier in your career?
Well, I don’t think of it as practice anymore, so that’s one change. I just play, and that’s how I think of it now. In terms of going up and down scales… I haven’t done that in years. I probably should, but I haven’t. What I do is try to make progress on particular goals. A constant goal is writing. I’m always working on new material. If I’m not, then I’m just sitting down, noodling, waiting for something to strike — for new material to come. So I almost always have some musical goal that I’m working on.
When I sit down with a guitar in the morning, it’s to consolidate what I already know and try to move it further — to find the next part of the tune.
Here’s an example. This is a regular 6 string in standard tuning. I have a capo on the 5th fret, but I’m leaving the 6th string open. I’ve got this much…
(plays first part of what would become Vika’s Tune)
…I don’t have it much further than that. So I’m trying to do two things when I sit down. I’m trying to consolidate what I already have to get it in my fingers as much as possible and I’m trying to figure out where it wants to go. How do I finish this tune? What is it going to do? So that takes me off on all sorts of possibilities.
And I don’t want to just finish the tune. I want it to be right. I don’t want it to be predictable. I want it to be as fresh as possible. I want to bring my entire creative potential and whatever skills I have to make it as good as I can. And I know when I’m there. The tune will talk to me and say, “Yeah, that’s it.” Or it may say, “No, that’s a little too obvious. Don’t do that, dummy.”
And did you notice in that last tune… I was playing the bass part with my thumb, but it’s not an alternating bass line in the traditional sense. You get a rhythm out of it that’s a little syncopated. It’s more like a bass player. It’s musical and the melody’s right there. At the same time, I’m doing other things… like playing on both sides of the capo, which can be tricky.
Beyond that… I was a flatpicker once. I actually won the national championship years ago. It’s been a long time. I don’t play that way anymore… I can’t. The picking motion was killing my arm. I’d start to feel pain go up my arm and if I kept going, it would completely lock up. I couldn’t do a simple motion, much less the speed you need to properly flatpick.
I stopped playing that way, but I still love that music so I had to figure out a way to make it work. I try to make a bit of my practicing to keep that single note playing going. What I typically do is make the downstroke of the pick with my thumb. The upstroke is usually my middle finger. It’s not perfect, but it’s getting there. It’s not as strong or dependable as a flatpick, but because I can’t flatpick… well, I guess in that way it is more dependable. It’s not exactly flatpicking but it’s close enough.
And you’re able to do some things that would be trickier with a pick.
Exactly. There’s a little bit of the benefit of fingerpicking in there as well. There are some things that would probably be a little harder with a flatpick.
That’s the only technique that I try to do on a regular basis that falls under the practice category, to go back to your original question.
I just don’t care about scales… how fast or cleanly I can play them. At one point, yes, I worried about that and I practiced that. Everybody has to go through some amount of discipline with things like that. I’ve taught a bunch of guitar lessons over the years. You’re running a school down there so you’re probably doing the 50-lesson-a-week kind of thing. I’ve done that. I didn’t have my own school, but I’ve had the 50-lesson-a-week thing. I started doing that in the 80’s. At the time, these teenage boys would come in and they all wanted to learn modes because they read in some magazine that it was cool to learn modes. And they wanted to play their modes really fast. Doing so, they completely lost sight of the music.
It got to the point where I’d say, “Guys, I can promise you’re never going to be in a situation where someone says, ‘Hey man, play me those modes. Those are awesome.’ They’re not going to do that. They’re going to want you to play a song. Learn songs. Use those other things as a means to an end — to play music.”
There’s discipline involved if you want to do something well. You need some of those things to strengthen your fingers and reinforce those patterns of movement. But ultimately, it all has to be in service of making music… especially if you’re thinking about making a living at it.
What projects are you currently working on?
First, let me tell you about the last project I did. Twenty-four years ago I recorded famous pieces from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. I did it for what I called a guitar orchestra, which was really just me a bunch of times… electrics, acoustics, a bunch of stuff. That was twenty-four years ago and it turned out really well. I sold a bunch and it still gets some radio play.
But what I just put out in December is a double cd. I did the entire Nutcracker Ballet for guitar orchestra. Again it was just me… Les Paul, Stratocaster, Telecaster… 17 different guitars… acoustics and electrics. I sat there with a conductor’s score and put it all together. It took me two and a half years. The finished product is an hour and twenty minutes of music. It’s everything you hear the orchestra play. That was a huge project that just came out in December.
And then I blew my left hand out in December. That was part of this year too… getting my hand back. I’d never had anything like that happen before. I was shaking my hands to dry them off, flicking them outwards like you do. I guess I did it too hard. This finger shot off that way, painfully, and stayed. I pulled it back because I couldn’t believe what had just happened, but my finger went back over. The tendon that goes across the top slipped and was sitting in this valley, pulling the finger over. I had hand surgery on New Year’s Eve. How’s that for a musician? A guitar player’s dream come true.
So that was a big part of this year, just getting my hand back. I didn’t do my first show of the year until April 3rd. I don’t have my wedding ring on right now because I can’t get it on. My fingers are still swollen, but I can play. So anyway, that’s been a project… getting myself together.
The next actual musical projects are… I’m waiting for my main harp guitar to return from having some repairs done in California. As soon as that comes back, I’m going to start recording a new guitar cd. I have a bunch of new tunes that I’ve written and some arrangements that I want to record.
Another project… a couple years ago I started writing… well, I had back problems and wound up having surgery then, too. It wasn’t very comfortable to play guitar then, so I was basically doing music on my computer and wound up writing a bunch of music for piano and cello that I really like. That’s another project that I have underway. It’s classical music, but you’d like it. It’s very cool and very accessible. There’s a particular classical concert pianist who lives nearby. She says she’s interested in looking at it, so I’m waiting to hear back from her. If that works then there’s a possibility of getting this all done live. Otherwise I have software with very good Midi instruments that I could use. Either way, it will be a cd of piano and cello — my first cd of non-guitar music.
I could learn the piano parts myself, but I’d have to cut my fingernails, quit playing guitar, and practice a ton. That’s not really the point of it. The point is to create the music. I don’t really care if I’m the one who plays it.
[Since we spoke, Stephen has also recorded an album of Beatles arrangements to be released this year.]
You’ve done a lot in your musical career. What advice do you have for younger musicians?
Figure out, as best you can, what your musical goals actually are. And then make progress on these goals, checking once in a while to see if you’re making progress on them. Additionally, in the pursuit of making a living and reaching whatever goals you’ve set for yourself, don’t forget what it is that you love about music… those things that made it your life’s work in the first place.
For me, I try never to forget that magic I felt from music when I first consciously experienced it. I try to make that happen for others, as best I can. I’ve tried to earn the respect of my peers for my writing and playing. And always, of course, to earn enough money to live on. Can’t forget that!
When I had my hand injury 6 months ago and didn’t really know for sure that I’d be able to play again the way I’m used to playing, I was forced to think about all these things again. And I realized that if I couldn’t play anymore, I’d be ok. I’d miss playing, obviously, but I realized that I had done what I set out to do. I had achieved the respect of my peers.
Fortunately, as I said before, my hand did turn out ok and I’ve got a lot more playing and writing to do!
Playing music can be a challenge, but it can be a challenge to do anything in life. In terms of advice, play as well as you can. Be nice to everybody. Don’t be a jerk. What goes around comes around. Also, being in the right relationship makes all the difference. Realize that being a musician can be a hard way to make a living, but it can also be a great way to make a living. If it’s inside you, telling you that you have to do it, then you have to do it. Just make the music as good as you can and be as nice to people as you can. The rest will sort itself out.
Catch the first part of our conversation here.
For more about Stephen Bennett, check out his website http://www.harpguitar.com.
Stephen Bennett is an award winning guitarist with well over 20 albums to his credit. His playing is filled with expressiveness and warmth that I found to be a reflection of his personality. It was an honor to speak with him over Skype about music, guitars, and life.
How did you get started on the guitar?
I guess the very first guitar I ever played was an acoustic guitar. It wasn’t even mine. It was just in the house. My mother had gotten it thinking that she would learn to play at some point. The guitar wasn’t a dreadnought or anything. It was actually a German guitar — a Framus.
So that was just sitting around. There was also some sort of beginning book and I paid absolutely no attention to that other than the back page which had the chord diagrams. Somehow I realized that if you learned some of those and moved from one to another it sounded good and you were close to making some music. All it takes is three chords. You can play Amazing Grace or anything Chuck Berry ever wrote with just three chords. So that’s how I started out.
I was born in 1956. I think I was about 11 years old when I started playing, so that’s about 1967. Somewhere in those first couple years of playing, I remember going with my dad to the local appliance store and I had $35 saved up. I bought my first guitar AND amplifier for $35. I mean, it wasn’t anything special, but that didn’t matter. It played and I just kept doing it.
I didn’t have guitar lessons. The only guitar lessons I ever took were when I got to college. I took three semesters of classical guitar. I’ve lots of other music instruction… I’ve had piano lessons and took private lessons on clarinet as a kid. I was even studying clarinet right on into college. And I studied tons of music theory and composition and all sorts of things in college.
That was all good and I learned a ton, but I started… well, I get the impression that kids don’t do things the way they used to. When I was a kid everybody formed bands. We all had garage bands. You just did that. And it was fun and you learned a ton. Having to play with other people… that’s a whole musical education to itself. It’s also a lesson in getting along with other people and all sorts of things.
So I started doing that pretty young… playing school dances and stuff. And by the time I was 16 I was playing 3 or 4 nights in a bar.
So it just evolved?
Yeah, it’s weird to think about now because I wouldn’t want my son playing in a bar at that age. But I was playing with a bunch of guys who were older than I was. Some of them were ten years older than I was. They were playing stuff like “Girl from Ipanema” and “Please Release Me” and wanted to rock up their act a bit. They wanted to play things like “Evil Ways” by Santana, Doobie Brothers tunes, and things like that. I wound up auditioning and got the gig.
My parents were divorced at that point, so I guess my mom made the older guys promise to take care of me. And they did. I mean, I survived and earned money and stuff. But that was as much a musical education as anything I ever had in class.
So how did you become interested in fingerstyle guitar?
For me, the beauty of fingerstyle guitar is that more than one thing is happening. I mean, I love the sound of just strumming the guitar… strumming some chords and rhythm. I always have. But when I heard actual fingerstyle guitar for the first time I thought, “Wow, there’s a lot of stuff going on in there.” It sounds like more than one person playing because of the multiple parts going on.
I started out by learning to do some repetitive patterns, which in their own way almost create a bassline. It’s not really a melody that’s happening, but it sounds good and it’s a start. It’s what you do first. Then I realized it’s going to be some work to keep a bassline going and make a melody happen. It’s not just going to sit right in the chords comfortably. To make it work, I have to think about chords in a new way. So that’s how I think of fingerstyle guitar and break it down for people if they’re not really sure what’s going on. It is more than one thing going on at a time and one of the ways to do that is to have your thumb playing the bassline. It doesn’t necessarily have to do that… you could work it out to where the melody is in the lower register and you could be doing other things up above, but one tried and true method is to have that alternating thumb going and put the melody on top of it.
I’ve said this before on instructional videos… I think there’s even something on YouTube of me saying something like this… You work really hard to get to the point where your thumb is dependable and you can actually start to do some other things with your fingers and play the melodies that you want. It’s really hard work to get to that point.
I realized one day that I had worked really hard to get there, but that alternating bass was driving me crazy. If I heard that one more time I was going to lose it. Then it’s making an effort to break out of that and play something different. My thumb can always play an alternating bass part if I want, but I try to break out of that so it’s not just thump-thump-thump-thump all the time.
It reminds me a lot of the way rock players feel about Pentatonic scales.
Yeah, exactly. You’re absolutely right. I’ve been in that place myself. When you’re a kid playing electric guitar you find out you can make lots of fun solos with just this simple set of notes and it’s great. And then you fall into a rut and realize, “I’m so sick of my own playing.”
And that’s great! It means you’re learning and getting better and becoming more critical of your own playing and that’s a good thing. If you start thinking you’ve got it all figured out, then you really don’t. There’s always more. It doesn’t matter how good you are or how long you’ve been playing, there’s always more. There’s always a world more, which is a wonderful thing.
How do you go about arranging songs for the guitar? Do you have a specific process?
Yes and no. I’m not really sure what the process is… I’ll explain it this way…
A while back a couple friends mentioned that they thought the theme from To Kill a Mockingbird would be really beautiful on harp guitar. I didn’t know the melody. I hadn’t seen the movie in forever. So I went to YouTube and a clip from the movie came up. The music was beautiful, so I decided to give it a shot.
I had to decide… I have an ear — a good ear. I can figure this out from the soundtrack, but I bet there’s a piano arrangement or something out there that I can find. I did a quick search, found something, and bought it. That gave me a piano arrangement. I wasn’t going to play it that way, it’s just saving me from going back and forth on the YouTube video. Now I know what the melody is, I can tell what the harmonization is going to be, and I just start.
So I guess the process for me is… you have to have a reference. And that reference could be that you know the tune well enough in your head. I didn’t in that case. Or you could find a recording of the tune. Or, if it’s available, you may want to go with some print music for the song and adapt it. There certainly wasn’t going to be a harp guitar arrangement, and even if there was, I wasn’t going to use it. I don’t play anybody’s arrangement of anything.
You need a reference point. Otherwise, you’re going to learn something wrong. And I’ve done that too. For example, take the theme from The Andy Griffith Show. Years ago I thought, “Oh, I know that.” And I just did it from memory. Turns out I didn’t remember it correctly and I played it wrong for years. At some point I decided I was going to use that tune for a workshop and thought, “Let’s check it out and make sure I’m doing this right.” That’s when I discovered I was not. I went to YouTube and got it from the beginning of the show and worked it out.
You make sure you have the melody right that way. You want to get the melody right if you’re arranging something. If you don’t have the melody correct, all you’re doing is playing “Variations on a Theme from Mayberry RFD.” You have to have the melody right and I had it wrong initially. And I’ve done that on a couple other tunes over the years. You don’t want to make that mistake, because you come up with something that’s nice, but it’s better to make your variations after you have it correctly. And just the melody… beyond the melody, any of the other elements that you want to change… then it becomes your style, your arrangement, your interpretation.
When I listened to the theme from The Andy Griffith Show as it appeared on the show, I thought, “Oh, it’s got this bass line going down while the melody goes up. That’s cool.” So you get little things like that if you go to the source. If people are arranging, that’s a rule for me. Go to the source. You need a reference point so you can get it right. Otherwise you risk getting it a bit off.
Beyond that it’s just a matter of figuring out how you want to do it. There’s a zillion ways to play a melody, particularly on guitar. It’s not like piano where a note is only in one place. You’ve got that same note in five or six different places on the guitar. So you have those choices. You have to figure out what works for you, what you like, and what your brain can remember. All those sorts of things.
How did you make the transition to harp guitar? Where did that begin?
Well, it began because in 1988, I wound up inheriting my great-grandfather’s harp guitar. It’s a very old instrument, going back to 1909.
I was born in Oregon, but I grew up in New York State… up in the Hudson Valley. Then I lived in Virginia for 32 years. But I was growing up in New York and my great-grandparents were in Oregon with all my other relatives. I knew this harp guitar existed. I even had a picture of it that I carried around. Actually, for a while I carried it around in my guitar case so I could show it to people.
In 1988, I went out there… it was probably my 2nd airplane flight at the time. My grandmother was ill, so I went out there with my mom to support her. I didn’t even know my grandmother, but I wanted to support my mom. While I was there I went to my uncle’s house and the harp guitar was there in his basement. It had been there for 20 years, since my great-grandfather died. He died in ’68, so that harp guitar had been in my uncle’s basement pretty much untouched for 20 years.
We went down in the basement, brought it up to the living room, and I sat on the couch and tuned it. I didn’t even know how to tune it, but I tuned it to something. I played around with it for a few minutes and my uncle said, “This is yours.” So I had a harp guitar.
And it turns out, it wasn’t just a harp guitar, it was a great harp guitar. It’s like someone handing you a pre-war Martin that had been under somebody’s bed for 20 years. It’s that kind of instrument… a Holy Grail sort of instrument. I fell in love with it immediately.
The first thing I had to decide was how to tune this thing. I didn’t know how it was supposed to be tuned. Early on, in the first few weeks I had it, I made a decision. Traditionally what they do is just go straight down in pitch. So beyond the low E string it would have been D, C, B, A, and so on. And there are different numbers of strings on harp guitars, so there’s no one tuning. That’s the typical thing… to go down from the E, but I didn’t do that. I decided early on that I wanted to have that G as an open string, so I gave it to myself. That’s my first harp string. I wanted to be able to fool around up the neck, but you can’t do that and hold down the G at the same time. It ain’t possible.
So then I had to decide what to do from there. That’s where I start to go down the way everybody else does. Actually, there are a lot of people who play in my tuning. It may actually be more common than the other way at this point. Like Andy McKee. He does various things, but he typically tunes the same way I do. The key bit is that first string… it’s the counter-intuitive one. You’re going up in pitch for that one, but it gives you beautiful things. For example, this C chord… you’ve got a C, G, and E harmonic. That’s a gorgeous C chord. For me, that was reason enough.
Now I’ve got G, C, B, A… and then a variety of things. For the longest time I thought, “Let’s go with another G. That’s a lot of G. Oh well.” I just started working in the occasional bass note. That’s how I started figuring out what I could do and what sounded good to me. So one thing led to another.
That’s just where I started with the tuning. I’ve changed things here and there. Now I’ve tuned the G down to an F and I’m going to change my B to a Bb, so the key of F will be great. That sounds really cool. The harp guitar gives you possibilities that you can’t do quite the same way on a regular guitar. I fell in love with it immediately.
So, how did I start playing harp guitar? I inherited one, so I had one. At the time there were a few other harp guitar players in various parts of the country, but no one was really tuned in to harp guitar. Actually, the same year that I got my great-grandfather’s harp guitar is the same year that Michael Hedges came out with Aerial Boundaries. It’s not like Michael played a lot of harp guitar. He didn’t play that many tunes on it, but he was always photographed with one. So he was the most visible harp guitarist out there at the time. I didn’t learn any of his tunes or anything, but he had great stuff.
I basically got my own style on this thing from the get go. It’s not like I was going to copy someone else’s style… I don’t do that. But there weren’t a lot of us there. There are a lot more now. I don’t know if you know this… I started a convention for these things… the Harp Guitar Gathering.
Is that a yearly event?
It is. We’re having our 12th annual gathering this year. I’m not hosting this year. This year it’s out in Idaho. It will be the first weekend in October. Odds are that I’ll have the gathering again next year here in Connecticut. There’s a possibility of having it in North Carolina the year after that. The way it’s informally set up right now is that I’ll host it every other year. And then we go out and about the other year.
Did you know there’s a harp guitar foundation now? With an actual formal structure and everything. It’s pretty cool. That thing didn’t exist at all when I started playing. I’m kinda proud of that… that the harp guitar’s come a long way and I had a hand in that.
Stephen will be releasing 3 new recordings by the end of the year… a cd of original material with a few covers, a cd of Beatles arrangements, and a cd of original compositions for piano and cello.
For more about Stephen Bennett, check out his website http://www.harpguitar.com
In January of this year I opened Fretworks Music School… a very exciting, and exhausting, process! Fretworks provides a relaxed atmosphere for music lessons. It’s also spacious enough to hold student performances and host clinics. I’m very excited and grateful to my family, friends, and students (basically extended family) who have made this a reality!
Special mention goes to Nicholas Malone, who created the logo. He’s a long-time student and already an entrepreneur at 17. Check out his company, NM Graphics.
Good things are on the horizon. Stay tuned!
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).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
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!
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.
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.
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 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.
My 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.
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.
Here is a link to me playing the four string bass:
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.
Here is a link for some 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.
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.
All the best, Tony! Thanks!
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.
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:
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.