It’s The Songs… Or Is It?

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.

Genre Preferences

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Great musicianship – could be a solo full of fire, an extension of amazing groove or a stunning voice.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?

Bruce Forman’s “Mother Tunes”

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.

My Journey

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.

The Songs

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].

1. Summertime

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.

Here’s the page with Episode 99V:

Support GuitarWank on Patreon:

Please support Bruce as well, his records are awesome and he’s a blast live;

Live Show Review: The Aristocrats Live

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.

The new album is fantastic, as expected

Plastic Farm Animals

Happily, the plastic pig and chicken made a return!

Bryan Beller and Rubber Chicken – making sweet sounds
Marco Minnemann shares the spotlight with Rubber Pig

Final Thoughts

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.

How Long Have You Been Playing?

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.

Deliberate Practice

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:

  1. It’s specifically designed to improve performance – who’s designing it, are they qualified?
  2. It can be repeated a lot – it’s in the “learning zone,” and improvement needs frequency
  3. 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?
  4. It’s highly mentally demanding – no “autopilot”
  5. 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.”

Time Capsule From 1995

Last week I was cleaning out a file cabinet and found a package I had mailed to myself many years ago. Based on the addresses, it must have been ~1995. I remember living in that apartment my senior year of college and the following summer.

At that time I was in an alternative/rock band called Huckleberry. In my humble opinion, we had a great mix of influences that blended nicely. We were firmly in the alternative rock category, but everyone brought something different and it was a lot of fun. Our name came from a line in the now-classic 1993 western Tombstone, where Val Kilmer’s character Doc Holiday replies to Johnny Ringo “I’m your huckleberry” and answers his challenge.

Huckleberry cira 1995

We played around Chicagoland for a year or two, often in classy places like Carmie’s Lounge, which we decided “had a two tooth minimum.” It was my first “real” band, outside of just jamming at parties with friends, and we had a blast. I sure learned a lot as well. Nothing but good memories.

Live From Somewhere In Chicago

Apparently I mailed a tape to my parents’ address to try to copyright the songs. Somehow I ended up with it and kept it with my files for all these years.

I completely forgot we ever did a cover of Concrete Blonde’s “Still in Hollywood” and Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” and his version of “Killing Floor.” My next band (with Huckleberry drummer) did an instrumental version of Machine Gun, but I didn’t recall doing it this far back. I’m a little nervous to hear myself back then… especially doing bluesy stuff, since I didn’t really get into blues for a few more years. I’m sure it’s terrible, but that’s half the fun of going back in time…


The First Play

And while I haven’t imported the whole thing yet (I do have other Huckleberry recordings), I took a video of the first playing of the tape in almost 25 years. The song is “Latty Dadi” – enjoy!

More Huckleberry Pics

Another great band photo – grunge era in full effect

The line… for reference

Live Show Review: Greta Van Fleet Live

Not a lot of bands have the balls to do a drum solo after the first song of the set. That kind of cool and unexpected event marked one of the best shows I’ve seen in a while. On a beautiful, warm evening in May, Greta Van Fleet took to the Orlando Amphitheater with tons of energy and blew the place away.

The Music

I loved that Greta Van Fleet delivered what I love about live music – they went beyond just playing their songs as-is. If you do it just like the record, why go see it live? On a few numbers they really stretched out, rode on the energy of the crowd, and took some familiar tunes in new places. I want to see interplay between the musicians. I want to see some chances taken. For all the flack Greta Van Fleet gets for their Zeppelin-isms, they take a lot more chances on stage than you might expect. Of course, their more popular tunes were all represented: Highway Song; Lover, Leaver; When The Curtain Falls; etc. I’ve been a fan for a while, but I was surprised how well I knew their catalog.

The Band

Josh Kiszka belting it out

Props to the whole band, but I want to call out a couple things. First, the singer, Joshua Kiszka, is a freak plain and simple. How he can hit those notes all night, show after show, is beyond me. He’s got a pretty high voice, but there’s gravel there. The way a bluesy rock singer should sound. I don’t know if he’s going to have a voice left when he’s 50, but for now he was incredible to see live. He’s also a great front man, and had the crowd engaged all night.

I also dug that Sam Kiszka (bass) did a number of songs on the organ, in the vein of John Paul Jones. It was a cool bit of variety. He’s a great bassist in that he holds down the low end and doesn’t overplay, but adds movement to the songs when necessary. Some bassists in rock bands just pound out eighth notes all night. Sometimes that’s what the song calls for, but some times you need the bassist to walk up to the IV, you need them to add a riff at just the right spot. He did that.

Brothers Rockin’

Props to Jake Kiszka’s guitar tone, which was thick, chunky and perfect for the music. It was ROCK guitar tone. He’s not necessarily a flashy player, but he serves the song whether through riffs, solos or extended improv jams. He did the blues rock thing, he played some slide, and pulled out the acoustic for a couple of tunes. He played his SG for most of the set, and seems to be forming a signature sound and style.

I mentioned it at the top but Daniel Wagner’s drum solo after the first song was a nice, unexpected surprise. It wasn’t long, but it was cool. He’s similar to Jake in that he’s not really a flashy player, but absolutely solid and always served the song.

The Crowd

To some degree I expected it, but I was happy to see young and old, men and women all enjoying the show. I saw 20-something girls singing along. I stood next to a guy in his 50s that had seen Greta Van Fleet over 20 times. There were modern rock fans, classic rock fans, metal fans, blues fans, and people just going out for a show. It’s nice to see this type of blues-influenced rock have such a big, wide draw.

The crowd was really engaged all night, singing along, hands in the air. Cell phones weren’t *too* bad… although it helped to be outdoors. At one point someone threw a bouquet of roses at Josh (the singer), it hit him square in the face… kind of funny. He laughed it off, took one of the roses and put it in his pants for the rest of the night.

The Venue

I had never been to the Orlando Amphitheater before, and I feared the worst – crowded, dirty, terrible sound. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Greta Van Fleet had the best live sound I’ve heard in ages. Everything was clear, it was loud but not too loud. I was pretty close up front on the right side of the stage. Normally being right in front of the PA would be a deal breaker, but here it wasn’t too bad. I did switch from my 18db to 30db ear plugs partway through, but that’s average for me. Actually, better than average. Due to my worsening tinnitus, ear plugs are simply a must at every show.

Because it’s a large area, part of the Central Florida Fairground, there were tons of options for food and drinks as well.

If there was a downside, it was the $20 parking, but you’re right there in the fairgrounds, close to the entrace so I didn’t feel put out.

Ida Mae

Blues Duo Ida Mae

The opening band, Ida Mae, did a great set of basically straight up blues. It was so gratifying to see a big and diverse crowd getting down to blues in 2019. The (generally) acoustic duo did a mix of originals and covers, and weaved in some nice banter to engage the audience. I dug it, check them out!

Why I Dig Classic Rock – And Why It Rocks!

Classic rock gets a lot of flack these days, especially from the guitar community. To me it’s more of an era than a specific style. I consider classic rock to be rock music from the 60s through early-to-mid-80s. The thing that makes it so hard to pin down is exactly what I love about it: the diversity… the variety! I love classic rock because it isn’t just one thing. It’s more of a label than a genre, and the lines are blurred. It grew from the seeds of blues and early rock and roll to incorporate country, folk and jazz. It began sprouting branches into prog and metal. Yet all of these styles blend together into what we now consider “classic rock.” The blues had a baby and they called it Rock & Roll, and classic rock often keeps one foot in the blues. It’s a key influence, even if masked by others. I think that’s something you can hear as a dividing line between rock & metal, and between classic rock and 90s & 00s modern rock. Bands like Yes might not have much blues in them, there’s no hard and fast rule, but classic rock usually has a pretty clear connection to its roots. Distinct genres have tend to severed more ties with their past.

This diversity the reason I put on classic rock so often. If I’m in a laid back mood, it’s there. If I need a bolt of energy during a workout, there’s a ton of classic rock that fits the bill. If I’m trying to focus and think, I can get something more spacey and ambient. If I want to sit and listen deeply, there’s plenty. I often pick music to listen to based on what I want to get from it, and what I want to match to my current mood. Classic rock is so broad, there’s always something to fit. I love metal, but I’m not always in the mood for that. Same for country, jazz, blues… Because classic rock incorporates all of that, I can always find something to fit.

Lasting Appeal

The great classic rock bands endure because they wrote, recorded and performed great songs, for sure, but I don’t discount the nostalgia factor. Those were very relevant decades for a lot of us in and above our 40s. We grew up with those songs. Still, there was a lot of other music made in those decades that hasn’t endured, and hasn’t made the impact on our lives. I still see kids walking around with Hendrix and Zeppelin t-shirts. The songs resonate. The musicianship resonates. And no matter how your tastes lean, or when you were born, you’re likely to find a top-shelf band or two that appeals to you.

What Makes The Music Compelling

The melting pot mentality added a depth to the music. Guitar players didn’t just chug out 8th note barre chords for a rhythm part like you hear so often these days. The rhythm part had riffs, it swung… it had some garlic on it! You had bands comprised of blues guitarists, jazz drummers, rock bassists and classical keyboard players. The bands themselves were stylistic melting pots. That diversity manifested into interesting and diverse music. These days – as much variety as there is in music overall – it seems that individual bands seem to be a bit more compartmentalized. Bands need to be “one thing” to market themselves. I do think jam bands are a big exception, which is why I love them as well, but that’s another post.

It also has an organic quality, regardless whether it was leaning towards metal or prog or country. It wasn’t over processed, although that’s probably a result of the era in which it was recorded. Some classic rock might sound like it’s from outer space (Yes, Hendrix, etc) but it still sounds human.

Classic Rock Guitar

Let’s be honest, it was the era of the “guitar god,” and the guitar heroes of classic rock bands made a big impression on a lot of people. I must admit that as a guitar player, I also love the edge of a lot of classic rock. The rhythm gets me, but also the attack for the notes, the often overdriven tone, the wide vibrato and soaring, searing solos. They spent the time to make solo that endure and that were miniature compositions in and of themselves. They displayed the full range of the instrument, which is incredible. Acoustic, electric, clean, dirty, laid back, energetic. Even within a single band guitar players of classic rock bands ran the gamut. That’s what I aspire to. The music doesn’t get boring to me because it’s so broad.

Old, But New To Me

Another great thing about this period is that so much music was made, I’ve been just discovering bands and albums from half a century ago that blow me away. There are a lot of treasures to unearth! My recent infatuation with Soft Machine is a great example. About ten years ago I was reading a funny Cracked article on prog and it sparked an interest in Uriah Heep. I knew a couple of their hits from the radio (Easy Livin’, etc) but never dug deep. What a great band! I bought my son a drum magazine a couple of years ago, which had an article about the band Coliseum, who I had never heard of before. There’s just so much out there to discover. Keep your eyes and ears open, and you’ll surely find a ton of A+ music that connects with you regardless how many decades have passed since it was recorded. I love finding music that’s “new to me.”

New Classic Rock

Thankfully for my ears, there are bands putting out great music in the style of classic rock. One foot in the blues, but melting in other influences and still staying “rock.” It’s totally understandable that people are burned out on “the hits.” With that in mind I’ve been creating a curated playlist of new classic, full of new songs that incorporate all the elements I love about classic rock. Some are relatively new bands, some are older bands putting out new music. Take a listen!

Five New Bands Carrying The Flag

While a lot of artists who were big in the 60s, 70s and 80s are still putting out great music, it’s heartening to see newer groups carrying the stylistic flag of classic rock.

  • Black Country Communion – a supergroup of sorts, comprised of veterans Glen Hughes, Joe Bonamassa, Derek Sherinian and Jason Bonham. They lean to the heavy side, and definitely bring the rock to new classic rock.
  • The Temperance Movement – this group brings more from Americana and blues influences, but they have an edge.
  • Rival Sons – on their 7th-ish album now, Rival Sons brings more sophisticated songwriting to bluesy hard rock.
  • Greta Van Fleet – say what you will, but in my opinion Greta Van Fleet has great songs mixed with a great vibe. They’ve stayed true to their vision and every time one of their tunes comes on I turn it up. What more do you want?
  • Blackberry Smoke – if you dig southern rock at all, you’ll dig Blackberry Smoke. Period. Great band all around, and constantly on the road so go check ’em out!

There’s a lot of overlap with newer artists typically labelled blues, prog, country and jam band. In my opinion, Joe Bonamassa’s and Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s best material lean more towards classic rock than straight blues. Jam bands like Moe could fit comfortably on a classic rock station. Some alt/country acts like the Zack Brown band put out material that I would say is closer to classic rock than Hank Williams Sr. What genre is it? Hard to say, but it fits in the spirit of classic rock.

Five Older Bands With Great New Music

These artists were in it during the heyday, and they’re still bringing it. If you haven’t kept up with their career lately, it’s worth your time.

  • Billy Gibbons – I caught ZZ Top frontman BFG and his Big Bad Blues band on tour last year, and it was one of the best shows I’d seen all year. If you’re a fan of the bluesier side of classic rock (like ZZ Top) definitely check out the Reverend’s new material like his Big Bad Blues album.
  • Robin Trower – psychadelic strat master Robin Trower is still on the road, and continues to put out great bluesy rock. His new album Coming Closer To The Day is fantastic.
  • Tom Keifer – frontman for the melodic hard rock (and bluesy) band Cinderella, Tom Keifer has put together a great solo career, which includes his recent and stellar album The Way Life Goes.
  • Uriah Heep – I actually discovered Uriah Heep’s classic catalog pretty late, but what a great band. 2018’s Living the Dream was another strong effort and as of this writing they’re on a rare US tour.
  • Jimi Hendrix – I have to throw one oddball out there. It never ceases to amaze me how much new Hendrix material gets released, even after reading “Ultimate Hendrix” which chronicles every live and recording date in extensive detail (hit: it’s a great read for the Hendrix fanatic). I suspect the well is drying up, but nonetheless, some of the recent releases like People, Hell and Angels and Both Sides of the Sky are really good. Not really in the “new music” category, literally speaking, but worth a mention.

Keeping Up

You can always google around to find a myriad “best of” lists, like this: Vintage Guitar magazine is a great source for seeing what classic rock band guitarists are up to these days, which is often releasing excellent new material. Their album reviews and artist interviews are the best in the business. You can always check out Classic Rock Magazine or Ultimate Classic Rock as well.

Listening To: Metallica – Helping Hands… Live and Acoustic at the Masonic

Most of the time when I hear metal bands do acoustic versions of their songs, they just swap out the electric guitars for acoustic and call it a day. Same basic arrangement, only with a tone that doesn’t quite… fit. That’s why I was so impressed with Metallica’s recent All Within My Hands acoustic set. They totally rearranged the tunes to make them work in an acoustic arrangement, but they still keep the spirit of the song. They didn’t turn them into country or folk tunes, but they didn’t take the easy way out. Bottom line: it works.


Highlights for me include the opener, Disposable Heroes, which took me a while to even recognize it’s so drastically different. It definitely sets the stage for what’s to come, though, and it works great. I was never a huge fan of the Black album to begin with, let alone how overplayed some of the songs are. If I never heard Enter Sandman” again it’d be fine. The acoustic arrangement on Helping Hands was a total breath of fresh air, though, and totally enjoyable. It takes a lot for me to enjoy that song, but I must admit I do! I also really dug hearing the Hardwired bonus disc track When A Blind Man Cries. It’s one of those bonus tracks that seemed “not quite finished.” Not as polished as the rest of the album, although the song had promise. In the acoustic setting, it felt more full. More complete. Finally I want to call out the bluesy version of Four Horsemen. It could have easily turned cheesy, but they pulled off turning a quintessential metal song into basically a blues. Hetfield’s voice carries it, as does the pounding rhythm section.

The Whole Album

If you’re a Metallica fan, or a music fan interested in how you take songs from one context and put them into another successfully and with independent musical merit, this is a great album.

There’s a killer vinyl version as well, which has great packaging. I’m tempted, although it’s pricey.

Listening To: Conan the Barbarian (my favorite soundtrack)

I can’t count how many times I’ve watched the movie. As a teenager, I had the entire script memorized. I copied it onto VHS from a TBS broadcast. I bought the “official” VHS (which was different from what aired on TV). It was by far my favorite movie of all time, and as a fan of high fantasy, Dungeons & Dragons and all that – Conan fit right into my sweet spot. I also loved that as a character, Conan didn’t rely on magic, mutant powers, or high-tech toolbelts. He was just a man with an iron will. The Robert E. Howard books the movie draws from are also great, of course, and I’ve ready them all. Multiple times.

The soundtrack has absolutely stuck with me over the decades, and I still love it when Riders of Doom comes up on my random “workout” playlist. When I’m out running 10 miles, this is what I want. When I was a computer programmer for a living, I also loved to write code to the soundtrack when I was under pressure. Maybe it was the energy, maybe it was the drive and attitude, maybe it was just helping me embody the “one man versus the world” ethos… It’s powerful, dark, full of energy. The softer songs on the soundtrack are tender but mysterious. It really does evoke the feel of the world, which is what a good soundtrack should do.

My Favorite Soundtrack of All Time


I’ve found some interesting variations, like this album of the soundtrack transcribed for Organ on Spotify, and some nice covers.

Intersting version!
A nice acoustic cover of Theology/Civilization
Cool acoustic cover of The Orgy

The Recording Sessions

The music is well-documented on Wikipedia. The post is definitely worth a read, even for fans. Did you know Conan the Barbarian the last film released by a major studio with a mono soundtrack? Apparently Raffaella De Laurentiis balked at the cost ($30,000) of a stereo soundtrack and was worried over the paucity of theaters equipped with stereo sound systems

Thanks to youtube, I can finally see the actual recording sessions, which 16-year-old me would have loved back in the 80s

It’s amazing to see the recording sessions!

The Score

Amazingly, I also found the score online here, which is a great resource! I found out why the Anvil of Crom main theme tripped me up. The rhythm is a bar of 6:4 followed by a bar of 5:4. Pretty cool. Deceptively simple once you know what it’s actually doing, but my ear didn’t pick it up.

On The Blues In The 21st Century

Blues in 2019 – indeed for the last couple decades – has been in an odd spot. If the music strays too far from tradition it becomes its own genre – it’s not blues anymore. The blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll. On the other hand, blues is accused of not evolving or keeping up with the times. Well, critics, you can’t have it both ways.

A vocal subsection of the blues community is to blame, though. There are traditionalists who have a very narrow definition of what blues is, and what blues should be. In my opinion, that’s counter to the history of the music. Blues evolved from field calls to acoustic troubadours, to full-on electric bands. Up until perhaps the 60s, blues melded with other genres like jazz and ragtime much more easily. Other genres influenced blues, and vice versa It had evolved. It was blue collar music for the people. It was spiritual. It was party music. It was a music of humanity, expressing a deep connection with the ups and downs of life. It was the soundtrack to both rural and urban life. It evolved with the changing times of 20th century America and the great migration of black folks from the rural south to the industrial north. Blues has enjoyed periodic resurgences in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. All that said, I do think blues has and does continue to evolve. There’s a lot of great, contemporary blues written both by melding in contemporary influences, as well as addressing modern-day themes.

New Blues

A lot of blues artists make music firmly in the traditionalist camp – there are still songs written about mules kicking in stalls. That’s fine, there’s a place for it. I still enjoy Muddy, the Wolf, T-Bone, Robert Johnson and all the godfathers of the genre and if someone really does a cover of one of those classic songs well then that’s wonderful. Blues has survived so long in part because the classic songs are timeless. The themes are as relevant today as they were in the 30s, 40s, 50s… That said, blues made in the 20th century blues was timely! Those artists were expressing their now. I’d like to see more of that, and that’s how blues stays relevant and vital in the 21st century.

Gary Clark Jr’s “This Land” is a great example of what I’d consider modern blues. It blends in some modern influences in the music, lyrically it tackles contemporary issues, but it still retains enough elements of blues to be an evolution not a complete departure.

Gary Clark Jr.’s “This Land” – modern blues

One can also write new blues in a traditional style. The lyrics and approach can be very relevant and contemporary while retaining a more classic feel. There are lots of folks out there in the blues scene today doing it, but a great example is a song from Joe Bonamassa’s latest record titled “Just ‘Cause You Can Don’t Mean You Should.” Let’s see more of this!

Traditional Style, Modern Approach and Lyrics

What Makes It Blues?

What makes a music “not blues” anymore? To me, blue is defined by rhythm more than anything else. There are a million I-IV-V rock songs, but they’re not blues due to the lack of swing, they’re played very straight on the beat. Of course, blues is more than shuffles, but there’s always a swing. I think a lot of people get hung up on the chord progressions. There’s more to it than that. There’s also a lot more variety in blues than just I-IV-V. Go listen to T-Bone Walker. Listen to BB. Listen to early blue where the overlap with ragtime and jazz was more pronounced. This is a deeper topic, and I’ll cover it more in the future. For now let’s just say it’s a gray area, open to personal interpretation.

So Blues Isn’t Dead…

The real issue clouding blues’ evolution is its place in popular culture. This is the case for lots of music and indeed lots of art and media. Is blues dead? Is jazz dead? Is classical? Is rock dead? Is the guitar dead? Are drums even more dead? If you think those are true, then what isn’t dead? As long a people are creating and listening to blues, it’s not dead. Of course it doesn’t hold the same share of public mindset that it used to, but that’s okay, nothing stays at the top forever. If you look at the nature of the music business in this decade – the era of streaming and Instagram – blues is doing as well as any other popular 20th century music. Look at the myriad blues festivals out there, small and large? Look at the use of blues in advertising and movie soundtracks? As noted above, if blues needs anything it’s more contemporary songs. It doesn’t need to turn into EDM or hip hop. Adding those influences to blues might be great if it’s done well, but it can stay true to its roots and still evolve.

Keeping Up With New Blues

If you’re on Spotify, their “In The Name of the Blues” playlist is a good mix

There’s also the weekly Smokestack Lightnin’ radio show, which broadcasts out of WUCF in Orlando, Florida. Fortunately they stream online. They tend towards more traditional blues, but still great to hear new stuff. They’ve been at it for a long time and it’s a real treasure.

If you’re hardcore, you might subscribe to one of the many blues-specific magazines out there like Blues Music Magazine, Living Blues, Blues Matters, Blues Blast, etc. Worth at least checking out an issue.

A simple google search will reveal a myriad blues festivals in every part of the country, all year long. There are a bunch of blues cruises. There are blues clubs, like my local Central Florida favorite, The Alley. There are lots of great, young blues artists out there. My message to them is: keep the spirit of the blues going strong by writing powerful, emotional and contemporary music that connects with people.