A few weeks ago I randomly picked up Rick Wakeman’s “Classic Tracks” at the Daytona Flea Market. I love going there, you never know what you’ll find. I knew the name Rick Wakeman, but couldn’t place that he was the keyboard player for Yes. I’d been listening to a lot of prog lately, and since it was in the $2 bin, it was worth a shot. What a great record! I’ve been listening nonstop for weeks.
Journey to the Center of the Earth – a 31 minute epic musical journey through Jules Verne’s fantastic tale. Rick Wakemans’ musical retelling of the story is a masterpiece, but what really surprised me was the killer guitar solo by Jim Gentry. It’s atmospheric, grooving, heavy… the song captures everything.
Catherine Howard – from his album “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” has as much variety as you’d want. It starts with beautiful acoustic guitars and segues into bluegrass-flavored synths. Some of the keyboard tones capture a harpsichord feel as well, perhaps bringing the listener back to the Age of Kings.
Merlin the Magician – now this is prog… a mash-up of styles and genres, starting with a heavy bass groove. Keys drift on top, with their melody adding an air of mystery. The lyrics are supported crunchy heavy guitars and more killer keyboard solos. Halfway through the song shifts dramatically to a whimsical and fast section, followed by a return to the groove and lyrics.
The cool thing about Rick Wakeman’s solo albums – and the songs on “Classic Tracks” – is that it’s 100% prog rock, but also accessible. I find Yes to be more of an acquired taste. I really have to listen, and be in the mood. I can put on and enjoy Rick Wakeman’s stuff a lot more often. Check it out!
I’ve always enjoyed browsing flea markets, Goodwills and yard sales for CDs and records. As a music fan and a musician, there are tons of reason why. Here are a few of them.
Oh, The Things You’ll Learn (From Album Artwork)
Let’s start with the obvious one, although it’s not always about the artwork itself. It’s also about the writing on the back, or other “bonus” stuff. One of the cool finds I had recently ($2) was Uriah Heep’s Greatest Hits. It wasn’t the music, as I already had most of the songs, it was the chart on the back of the record that showed various members’ tenure with the group. What a cool find! Sure, I could probably find that on wikipedia if I searched, but why would I do that.. and when? This was one of those particularly nice bonuses to records you don’t get with mp3s or streaming.
I’ll talk about it below, but I got a Rick Wakeman CD that I really love, Classic Tracks, and scanning the album notes I saw it has a connection to my home of Orlando, FL. How random! I was blown away by the guitar playing on this record, too, so it’s cool to be able to look it up and see who played on it. Sure I could search the internet, but I was listening to it with my kid in the kitchen. I didn’t want to – and didn’t have to – get up and go to the computer or pull out my phone. The liner notes were right there.
It’s not just the thrill of discovery of the music, but the things you learn from browsing the packaging.
To be honest, I’m not that into buying new vinyl at $30+ a pop. I do love finding records and CDs at garage sales, used shops and flea markets though. They’re CHEAP! I often find CDs at garage sales at 3-for-a-dollar prices. I get a lot of vinyl at flea markets or Goodwill for a few bucks. Even mp3s can’t compete with a $0.33 CD. I get that streaming services are a good deal for a lot of people, but personally I don’t want to be locked into $100+/year for a subscription, and if I ever decide to cancel the music is gone. I also don’t like being locked into having to be online. Sure, Spotify lets you download songs to play offline if you’re a paid subscriber, but you need to know ahead of time you want to download it… which kills the “discovery.” I think used CD & vinyl is a great deal.
Of course artists aren’t getting a cut of the used album sale, but they did get paid for the initial sale. I definitely do buy new music as well, and I support artists I love, but it’s not an either/or thing.
Incentive To Actually Listen
We’re so inundated with music these days, but I find I don’t listen to artists in any depth when on Spotify or Youtube. They’re great services for checking things out, but it’s always brief. Background. One and done. I have no incentive to listen to something over again and really get it. When you purchase a physical product – spend the money and hold the disc – it’s incentive to put it on and listen. If you spend money on something specific, even if it was $2, there’s an inherent desire to not waste that money. Even if it’s not an album I listen to very often, when I buy something, I always listen through at least once.
How many times have I heard Peter Frampton’s “Do You Feel Like We Do” from Frampton Comes Alive? Hundreds? After all these years, I’d never sat down (or ran, or biked, or worked) and listened to the whole album. What a great record, top to bottom. The hits get overplayed, but the deep tracks get overlooked. I would never have bought this on iTunes or streamed on Youtube. But for $2, I figured the record was worth owning, and it absolutely was! Tracks like “Lines On My Face” are so good. I see now why the record earned so much respect. Without buying the vinyl, I never would have listened to it.
You Can’t Find That On Amazon… and Wouldn’t Think To
It opens you up to random music you wouldn’t otherwise hear. Browsing through bins of CDs or records sparks curiosity. Sure, you can find 95% of the music online, but would you know to even look for it? Would you take the time to listen to it? Even spending a few bucks and having the physical product is incentive to actually listen to new things.
For example, I knew the name Rick Wakeman (keyboardist in Yes), but never sought out his music. While I like Yes, I’d never even think to look up his solo work. It’s incredible! What a great album. I highly recommend it, and I got it for the low prices of ZERO. The flea market shop owner thew it in for me as I bought a bunch of other stuff.
I find so many things that catch my eye, CD and vinyl shopping has expanded my interests, knowledge of music, and my ear. Artists I’d heard of but never listened to; artists I love but hadn’t heard X album before; styles of music I wouldn’t go out of my way to find but fora $0.25 garage sale record – why not?
Be it garage sales, church sales, Goodwill or flea markets, there are oddball gems to be had…
I stumbled upon this Lord of the Rings concept album by Swedish multi-instrumentalist Bo Hansson. It’s very much in line with 70s prog, and very cool. I’d never find this on Amazon or iTunes
Another time I bought a Paul Butterfield Blues Band record that had a newspaper clipping advertising a live show. Pretty cool bonus!
Get out there and browse! Look at the artwork, read the packaging. Find something cool, new, old, unique… Streaming certainly has its place. Historically with music, convenience seems to win out in the market. It’s just not as much fun.
It’s hard to believe it was 15 years ago! Stephanie and I headed into the studio in Summer 2014 to record a full album, which blended rock, blues, country and folk. I dubbed it a “tasty musical burrito,” stuffed with all those elements. Like the classic rock bands we grew up with, we wanted to mix our influences and interests into something unique. The songs had been polished up in both electric, full-band and acoustic duo versions over the preceding years so we only did a few rehearsals ahead of time.
Recording was done in just a few days, though it took a bit longer to mix. We moved from Chicago to Florida the day after our major sessions were done and had to make a few final tweaks by mail. Ah, the good ol’ days before dropbox…
As for gear, I used everything available – my SRV and 57 reissue strats were on most songs. My Dr. Z and Mesa combos were on most tracks. The studio had a full Marshall stack, which I cranked up for “Fire.” I also borrowed the studio Les Paul for a couple solos. I enjoyed the variety, and definitely wanted to make the record tonally varied and interesting. Hopefully that comes across.
You can read more about the project and album on the Zeyer page.
After all this time, it’s a pleasant surprise to listen again and get a clean perspective. At the time you’re recording and gigging the material, it can be hard to be objective. In hindsight, we’d change a few things – more pronounced bass in “Ain’t Got Wings,” perhaps an organ solo in “3 O’Clock in the Morning.” Overall, though, I’m still proud of the record and I hope fans have enjoyed it.
My personal favorites are “Fire,” “3 O’Clock in the Morning,” and “God Fearing Woman.” Of course, being a blues fan, I gravitated towards those songs. What are your favorites? Let me know by sending me a message!
I hear over and over “it’s all about the songs” or “artist X is a good player, but he really needs betters songs.” Let me be clear, I don’t disagree that a good song is important. I appreciate the sentiment behind these statements – but what makes a good song is not easy to define. I’d argue that often the bar between a good song and terrible song is simply your personal preference. How much does the song connect with you? Ask 100 people what their favorite song on a classic album and you’ll likely find a lot of different answers. Ask 100 people if “popular song in genre X” is “good” and you’ll rarely get consensus.
If you listen to mostly metal, how much will a well-written country song appeal to you? Would you be able to say it’s a good song, even if you don’t like it? If you’re a big fan of prog rock, how much will you enjoy a well-written modern pop song? Lots of people – myself included – enjoy a wide variety of genres of music. That doesn’t mean I like everything, but even with genres or styles that don’t connect with me I can find something to appreciate. I suspect a lot of people have more narrow tastes, and they gauge the quality of the song itself against the context of their genre preferences.
I find this expressed a lot with blues. People say blue artist X is a good player, but they need better songs. It sure seems that I hear this from people that don’t listen to much blues, and don’t really like the genre. If you don’t think blues song X is good, what blues songs do you like? Is it really the song, or the performer? I tend to think that often it’s the latter – someone doesn’t really like the singer or guitar player or something, and it’s not really a lack in the song itself.
I grew up in the hayday of 80s hard rock and metal (Dokken, Def Leppard, Tesla, Ratt, etc). A lot of people have been disparaging that for decades. A lot of people say the songs are cringe-worthy. Lyrically, sure, there’s a lot to be desired in a lot of the material; but there are plenty of examples to the contrary. I’d also argue that a lot of those songs are really well-crafted. They have the pop craftsmanship and focus, with metal tone, attitude and musicianship. Great intros, hooks, nicely-placed bridges, mind-blowing solos… and they certainly resonated with a ton of people over many years.
How many people complain about the formulaic aspects of modern country and pop? To me, that’s a valid criticism. There is a lot of ‘formula’ writing. That doesn’t mean they’re not good songs with clever lyrics and great musicianship. They obviously appeal to a whole lot of people, and I must admit that from time to time I get modern pop songs stuck in my ear even though it’s not what I normally listen to and enjoy.
The Song or the Performer?
I had an interesting online discussion many, many years ago on a songwriter’s forum. We were talking about our favorite songs of all time, and one of the senior members made the clear distinction between the song and the performance. I hadn’t made that distinction before. I called out Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” as one of the greatest songs of all time, but truth be told, it’s really one of the greatest performances of all time (in rock, anyways). It’s not that it’s a bad song or anything. It’s amazing, it expresses and captures a feeling so incredibly well. I don’t know how well it stands on its own, though, if some other artist did a drastically different version. I often hear great performances that turn an unspectacular song into something really special, and it’s hard for me to draw the line. In my opinion, we can’t get too micro with music. Everything touches everything else, and trying to isolate individual aspects can lead you down an unending rabbit hole.
What Makes Good Songs
Then again, I hear a lot of mediocre stuff on blues radio: the lyrics are shallow and predictable, the music isn’t played with feeling and groove, and the arrangement is predictable and boring. I can’t always say with certainty what makes a given song connect, but here are a few things that make songs “good” to me regardless of genre:
Interesting, well-crafted lyrics – for the love of God, please no more maxims and well-known phrases in song lyrics. If I never hear “rain fells like tears” or “cuts like a knife” again it will be too soon.
Killer groove – rhythm is king! Period. If the song swings, drives or just grooves hard, that can get me moving and into it regardless of anything else.
Great musicianship – could be a solo full of fire, an extension of amazing groove or a stunning voice.
Melody – this one I put lower on the list because to me, melody is more important in some genres (pop, jazz) than others (blues, metal). A great melody sticks with you and brings you into the song even if you don’t understand the lyrics. It can completely define the song.
Interesting changes – sometimes hanging on the I for 5 minutes totally works. It’s nice to have something to perk my ear, though. Does the song change at the right time and take you somewhere when it needs to? Does it have an intro that grabs you? Having a single chord progression loop from start to end – or maybe one verse progression and one chorus – isn’t always enough. Does the song lead you from one place to another or perk you up at the right time?
If you haven’t checked it out yet, give a listen to the Guitar Wank podcast. It’s incredibly entertaining, funny and insightful. A while back – episode 99V – jazz guitarist extraordinaire and co-host of Guitar Wank conducted a special episode in which he walked through 10 “Mother Tunes” for folks learning jazz. What made this so special is that he explained exactly why each song was so important, and what it can teach you. It really sets the foundation to learn and play jazz well. He also touched a lot on how to learn songs effectively, how to solo, how to play these in every key, how to practice. In my opinion, it’s a must-listen discussion regardless which genres of music you like. If you’re a guitar player, you need to check it out.
What’s interesting about this particular episode is that it mirrored my own experience. When I first got interested in playing jazz, I made a goal: “I’m going to learn to solo over Giant Steps!” Yeah… two months into that I figured I needed to take a step back and actually learn the building blocks of the genre. I opened up the Real Book and started learning some of the standards (including a few the Bruce calls out below). It was sooooo much more productive and fun. After learning a dozen or so standards, my ear started picking out ii-Vs, my reading improved, my ability to improve over slower, more basic changes improved. It gave me some kind of foundation to build on. It was absolutely the right approach, and I feel kind of silly jumping right from basically nothing into Giant Steps. Live and learn. Even though this was quite a few years ago, Bruce’s overview of these ten tunes has been really useful because of all the detail he goes into about why these tunes are valuable. What they can teach you. Just learning to play a song from the Real Book is one thing, but there’s so much more to learn from these songs than just being able to “get through them.” That’s why I loved this episode so much.
All that said, let’s get to the songs. I’m going to summarize my takeaway from each, but please don’t stop at this. This is the Cliff Notes version at best. You’ll get a lot more out of actually listening to Bruce Foreman go through them in detail, and there’s a lot of side-information he covers. I’ll also call out little bits I personally want to practice with [Practice].
It’s a minor blues, just a different form. The melody tells you what the chord needs to be. Learning that will make this and every other song make sense. There’s a little turnaround and relative major at the end of the form.
2. Honeysuckle Rose
It’s the best study of ii-Vs, and features an iconic melodic phrase (Charlie Parker used it all the time). [Practice] Try altering practicing that phrase over ii-Vs – come from below, come from above, etc. The bridge harmony is also iconic (AAB Form song). It goes to the key of the IV (ii – V I of the IV) | 2 Dom | 5 Dom. It’s a similar bridge to Take The A Train. Again, the key is always hearing the melody. Scrapple From The Apple = Honeysuckle Rose with the I Got Rhythm bridge.
3. Take The A-Train
The most obvious use of the II7 (2-Dom7 or V of the V). Other examples of the II7 – Girl from Ipanema, Jersey Bounce, etc. The note is actually the +11, the II7 doesn’t try to change keys, it just adds color. AABA, version of the Honeysuckle Rose bridge.
4. Autum Leaves
Teaches you and highlights the concept of Sequential Ideas. That’s what makes melodies work, and it makes solos work. [Practice] Your solos need to consider that every line should have some DNA from the line before. Learning the melody from Autumn Leaves should change the way you solo. [Practice] Learning in all 12 keys if you hear the melody intervallically! Practice finding these intervals with an easy tune (Happy Birthday). Play the melody all over the neck, using different fingers to start. Play the changes in zones (positions) – force yourself to find all the chords within those 3-5 frets. It’s the world’s best study of how relative minor and relative major live together. It ounces back and forth between major & minor (sounds bittersweet). 32 bar form, it gives you the impression of AAB, but B goes on…
5. All The Things You Are
Best study of the cycle of 5ths. All the melody notes are 3rds (note: 3rds are like the guitar player’s root, since the bassist usually covers the root). What a gift it is to really hear the 3rd of all those chords!
6. There Will Never Be Another You
Great example of backcycling / Bird-style changes. Similar to “Blues for Alice.” Just another way of playing the blues. Just a moving 5th. 8 bar A, 1st ending, 8 bar A, 2nd ending (A1 A2 tune). Goes to the IV, then 2dom, 5 dom, 1st ending, 2nd ending resolves. Most A1 A2 songs do this.
7. Just Friends
It starts on a IV chords – lots of songs do this. “Limehouse Blues,” “I’ll See You In My Dreams.” [Practice] strum the chords in 8th notes to really hear the motion – that motion is very common. Another A1 A2 song (note: A2 is where it resolves, but it needs to have a turnaround to set up the following chorus).
8. Green Dolphin Street
Introduces the “triadic shift” – could play it as a “bullfighter progression.” Parallel motion A1 A2 form. Miles Davis rewrote the 2nd A. A2 turnaround (36251 (E- A7 D- G7 C).
9. Ain’t Misbehaving / (Alternate: It Could Happen To You)
Both tunes teach the same thing. Ascends chromatically. [Practice] try this variation on chords (I learned it as D F#7 E-6 A7 instead of D D#dim, E-6 A7). They’re both fine, they’re interchangeable. Depends what kind of sound you wnat.
10. Stella By Starlight
Everybody plays it. In some ways, it’s a song that doesn’t make sense, but it works.
GuitarWank and Bruce Forman
I’ll repeat: this is a wonderful podcast, full of humor and wisdom. It’s not appropriate for kids, so language warning.
It’s hard to believe it had been 6 years since The Aristocrats last came to Florida. Previously they played at West End in Sanford, a little bar just north of Orlando, and it was almost a religious experience. The place held about 100 people, and I was able to stand just a few feet away from Guthrie, Marco and Bryan. This year, they came to a slightly larger venue downtown Orlando and blew the packed house away. I really don’t need to write much for the review, other than wow. If you have any interest in progressive, instrumental music you need to go see the band.
It’s not just the mind-boggling level of musicianship from every member; but the humor, the interaction with each other and the interaction with the crowd that made it special. Bryan Beller got the crowd going for every song: leading chants, clap-alongs, cheering. While this is an instrumental band, he basically filled the (necessary) role of front man.
You Know What?
Touring on support of their new album “You Know What?” they played a great mix of new and old material. Happily they played my favorite track from the new album, “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde.” Bryan Beller went through a lengthy backstory for how the song came about. Part of what made the show so much fun was hearing the backstories behind many of the new songs.
Plastic Farm Animals
Happily, the plastic pig and chicken made a return!
I was pretty tired by the time the Aristocrats took the stage, but I’m so glad I made it out. The musicianship is incredible, of course, but the humor and audience interaction puts they in a class way above most instrumental rock/fusion/shred bands. Highly enjoyable, and absolutely worth going to see.
I totally get a non-musician asking the question. It makes sense, it’s not offensive… it’s looking for a very general answer. It might give someone a sense of beginner or expert. That said “I’ve been playing guitar X years” is a pretty worthless answer.
The first three years I played guitar, I didn’t learn much. I took lessons, but didn’t practice. I could play a couple of riffs, but no full songs. I didn’t know how to improvise. I had a terrible ear. I just didn’t practice much in those first few years. Steve Vai probably put in more hours on the fretboard in his first three years than I put in over my first twenty. No joke.
A Word from Mister Vai
“I never thought I’d amount to anything in the grand scheme of things. I thought everything I could do, I’m sure everybody could do. But the one thing I didn’t realize is that I was spending 10, 15 hours a day learning how to do it.” – Steve Vai
Math Is Fun!
Let’s do some math, shall we? 1 hour/week x 50 weeks/year = 50 hours/year. That’s probably where I was for the first couple of years I played. However, 1 hour/day x 300d/year = 300 hours/year. 4 hours/day x 300d/year = 1200 hours/year. 8 hours/day x 300d/year = 2400 hours/year. If I kept at the “one hour a week” thing it would take me 24 years to get as much time on the fretboard as someone playing 4 h/day. 24 years. And according to every Vai interview I’ve seen, he put in a lot more than that (see above)… even as an average.
So “I’ve played guitar 5 years” could mean a lot of different things. You might very well be a complete beginner after 5 years… or you could be professionally gigging.
It’s also about deliberate practice. It’s not just raw hours, it’s what you do with them It’s how focused you are on getting better with that time. See my post on “5 Ways To Get The Most of Limited Practice Time” for more on that. The book “Talent is Overrated” also talks a lot about deliberate practice, and the concept behind that. It’s a great read, highly recommended.
The general concept of Deliberate Practice comes down to a few things:
It’s specifically designed to improve performance – who’s designing it, are they qualified?
It can be repeated a lot – it’s in the “learning zone,” and improvement needs frequency
Feedback on results is continuously available – this is tricky with things like rhythm practice, how do you really know if you’re off – in the moment?
It’s highly mentally demanding – no “autopilot”
It isn’t (inherently) much fun – “if it were, everyone would be a master.” I’ve found a way to find joy and fun in even mundane practice. Once you get to that state, you’re in a good spot to improve.
So you can sit down and noodle over the same diatonic chord progression you’ve jammed over for years, and do it for hours and days without getting much better. You need to have the mindset of “what can I learn today” not “how much time can I spent today.”
So, how long have you been playing?
I won’t get offended if you say “five years.” Just keep in mind it doesn’t mean a whole lot. It might be better, at least when talking to other musicians, to talk about what you can do – “good at improvising, can’t play metal, can read okay, good ear but bad timing, big repertoire of rock but don’t really improvise, etc.”