Guitar and Creativity, Part 2: What This Means to You, and Don’t Kill Yourself!

I am Jack's Raging Bile Duct. I am Jack's Cold Sweat. I Am Jack's Complete Lack of Surprise. I Am Jack's Smirking Revenge. I Am Jack's Broken Heart.

What is this, Fight Club?

This is Part 2 in a series on Guitar and Creativity. Read Part 1 here.

What is You? As people, we tend to form our own identities and the emptiness in our lives with various things: gender, religion, race, job, education, money in the bank, clothing worn, sports, height, body, physical appearance, favorite music, favorite movies, etc. and even sometimes something as stupid as number of Facebook friends or Twitter followers.

A wise man once told me that as guitar players, we have the amazing but often neglected opportunity to tap into our truest forms. What he said was that beneath all the superficial nonsense, there is an identity deep inside each and every one of us that is one of a kind and unique to ourselves. The way that identity is forged is from some combination of life’s experiences and subconscious thoughts, and cannot be adequately described with any conventional method. Call it a soul if you will, but it is the duty of any guitar player (or artist, really) to somehow access this special voice and transmute it into art.

Of course, the task is easier said than done. An instrument with virtually limitless possibilities and room for exploration makes for a challenging palette and canvas. Before breaking the rules, one needs to learn what the rules are first, which requires discipline and dedication.

quality practice

Getting there.

Getting to the Jump. How does one transform this energy and make that Evil Knievel jump over the chasm of cars and into the world of the truly creative? It goes without saying that at a minimum, some sort of requisite level of fluency in the desired idiom is necessary. To reach the chasm, an dizzying selection of materials are available online and in book form, with tabs typically being the most popular form of education—and there certainly is nothing wrong with learning songs and solos that emotively move you. From there, theory is commonly the next step, if one should choose to take a next step in the first place, which is a hefty assumption. The merits of theory are certainly debatable: on the one hand, Hendrix, Van Halen, Montgomery, Clapton and countless others became immortal while knowing no theory, but on the other hand, there comes a certain point after playing for a while where not knowing how the instrument works can feel a bit embarrassing. All in all, is it interesting and does it somewhat inform your playing? Yes. Is it a necessity? No.

The important point is that neither licks nor theory will get you past the chasm and into the realm of creative imagination. The more you listen to a guitar player or band, and certainly the more you learn a guitar players licks, the more you will end up sounding like him/her. Add a few more influences into the mix and you become a juggler. Likewise, the commendable step toward theory taken improperly will just sound scale-y and ludicrous. In order to make it sound less so, guitar players resort to licks they’ve heard, which ends up somewhat negating the forward progress. At this point, guitar players either fall into a rut or plateau, or seek learning through a guitar teacher.

Sheep

No One Knows?

Most Guitar Teachers Turn Students into Clones. There definitely is nothing wrong with getting a guitar teacher. Teachers can accelerate your learning curve and point out mistakes that you’re making that could potentially turn into bad habits or take years to notice. For this reason, teachers are probably the fastest way to reach the chasm. I’ve seen teenagers in Guitar Center or Sam Ash who had been taking lessons for only a few years just obliterating the fretboard. These kids probably end up being legendary among their friends, but fast forward years later and if they haven’t quit the instrument out of boredom, they’re either still copying the same rock licks as everyone else, or they’ve gotten tired of trying to play faster than anyone and have resorted to copying the same jazz licks as everyone playing jazz. Jazz is a musical world of incredible depth and complexity, but stroll into a bar in the Village and you’ll hear an array of guitar players who are masters and elite talents no doubt, but are still playing post-bop jazz in the same vein as Joe Pass, Grant Green, George Benson, etc. maybe with slight personalized twists.

Most guitar teachers do little to ameliorate this sadly static state of guitar. In one scenario, a student will come to the teacher with a list of favorite guitar players, songs and solos, and ask for some sort of unlocking of their secrets. In a second, more advanced scenario, a teacher will pretty much show the student how to sound like him by sharing his own licks and approaches to the fretboard both theory and technique-wise. The result with either is a student who ends up as a clone in one way or another.

Matrix

Dodge this.

The Best Teachers are Those Who Encourage You to Sound Like You and No One Else. Conversations I’ve had with teachers of this special type have been reality-altering and earth-shattering, both guitar-wise and personally (aren’t the two one and the same, anyway?). They become mentors in a way, guiding you in a spiritual journey toward finding your own voice by giving you a framework of thought for guitar playing while still kicking your butt if you sound like you’re becoming a robotic clone. My opinion is that this type of teacher is the only one worth learning from, after a certain point.

The Fusion Way. I’d like to give two examples of how people make the leap into originality and innovation. The first is the master juggler. The very best jugglers of licks and styles transcend mimicry by creating a magic of their own. This trait is typified by elite fusion players who blend pentatonic rock licks with inside/outside jazz-ish playing and blazing chops. Somehow these players are able to add a unique twist of their own in the way they weave up and down the fretboard that makes them special and different than the rest. However, these types are less uncommon. My favorite player of this type in New York is Mike Stern, whose infectious energy and zest for life oozes out of his guitar. In the global guitar scene, IMO UK-based Guthrie Govan is clearly at the top of this category, with his unparalleled combination of chops and fluidity. He embodies the spirit of the sponge who soaks up every single juicy tidbit of every musical genius of the past century, then releases it all in an epic concoction of brilliance.

Different than the herd

For many, different is obvious.

The Experiment Way. Another way is to forge a new sound by taking an informed walk through the world of theory and doing it in a way that is imaginative and energetic. While I never attended the Berklee School of Music, the academic approach to guitar playing has always seemed to me very formula-based. This approach usually entails lots of jazz theory and the understanding of modes, intervals, harmony and rhythm inside and out. The Berklee approach can sound very dry and overly cerebral at times, but when done right and combined with a sufficient dose of magic and spirit, shatters walls and breaks new ground. During my years spent in New York City, the champion of this approach in my mind was Wayne Krantz, a Berklee grad from Corvallis, Oregon. He literally sounds like nobody and talks about not listening to any other music for fear of inadvertently absorbing other players’ styles and sounding like them. While Meshuggah hails from Stockholm, Sweden and not Berklee, they seem to be at the forefront of academic rhythmic complexity in rock, with massive superimposition and polyrhythm in a way that has by now amassed a huge legion of followers worldwide.

“What If I Want to Stay in a Specific Genre?” There is nothing wrong with being a blues, country, jazz, folk, fingerstyle, or singer-songwriter guitarist. Certainly with any of these, an abundance of passion and commitment is necessary. However, it is of note that these genres are rooted in musical and cultural history, and have already largely been pre-defined. If you end up trying to forge your own sound while pledging allegiance to an idiom, you usually end up with just a personal twist (e.g. blues with a twist, country with a twist, singer-songwriter with a twist). The goal should be to make that twist as personalized and awesome as possible, because doing so is the only way that audiences will detect a fresh new creative talent to gush over.

10 Ideas to Make the Leap to Creative Imagination Off the Top of my Head in Roughly Increasing Complexity.

  1. Use a Metronome and Always Record Yourself Screwing Around – When you hear yourself play, you’ll notice all sorts of horrible mistakes. You’ll also hear stuff you really like, and if you’re listening to yourself doodling in a wacky way and you catch something that sounds weird or different but cool, you know you’re onto something.
  2. Chordal Voicings – By taking CAGED or other constructs and combining it with knowledge of theory, you can construct your own chord voicings that could floor people with their fresh sound. For example, John Mayer used his Berklee education to come up with hip acoustic chords in Room for Squares that ended up making millions of girls scream. A good place to start is suspension, seventh chords (major, minor, dominant), and diminished/augmented.
  3. 3 Note per string – I typically think of positions in 2 ways: CAGED and 3-note per string, CAGED having more potential for sounding different but 3 note per string definitely more optimized for blazing fast lick playing (e.g. repeating a pattern upward or downward). If your goal is to generate cool shred licks, a good place to start for 3 note per string would be the Guitar Grimoire book and John Petrucci’s Rock Discipline DVD. However, it definitely has an obvious sound and has been done ad infinitum, so beware and try to do something cool with it.
  4. CAGED – A typical answer to freshening yourself out of a rut and creating a new sound is to jump into a different position. The reason for this is that the vast majority of rock’s lexicon is in the “G form” of the pentatonic scale, and working through the four other positions is going to screw up your muscle memory and mental circuitry of how to play, forcing you to think differently. For CAGED my favorite book is Fretboard Logic by Bill Edwards.
  5. Different Tunings – Different tunings can be a mind-blowing paradigm shift for anyone like me who has always been stuck in EADGBE or Drop-D in some way or another 100% of the time. Open tunings like open D or open G are really fun ways to create a sound different than most of the other material out there that’s created in standard tuning.
  6. Learning Licks and Progressions in Other Idioms – The end goal of learning licks in other genres isn’t to copy the licks, but to try to unconsciously inherit some of the melodic and rhythmic quirks and tendencies in those genres and possibly toss them into your playing. The end goal is to be a well-informed player, comfortable in all idioms but not subscribing or bowing to any single one.
  7. Playing Horizontally Instead of Vertically – Due to the way the fretboard is constructed, the vast majority of guitar playing is done vertically in a position with a width of four or five frets. This conveniently keeps your hand where it is, changing strings instead of moving the hand left or right. However, there is something incredibly stifling mentally about this way of playing. In contrast, a piano player is able to see every note at his disposal in a sequential array from left to right, and can visualize lines and melodies much more easily. Guitar players can benefit from this more natural visual construct by moving up and down single strings. A good way to work on this is to pick one or two strings and just doodle lines up and down the fretboard. It’s very awkward and counter-intuitive at first, but increases your flexibility two-fold, while also making your playing more vocally focused.
  8. Modes – It’s very easy for someone to say, “Just learn modes, man”. As a better answer hopefully, I like to think of modes as different flavors at your disposal. By learning what the important intervals in modes are, one can accentuate the varying flavors of each mode at any moment in time, whether it be the #4 in Lydian or b2 in Phrygian. Outside of Ionian (natural major), Aeolian (natural minor), and Dorian (common in rock and jazz), the other modes are more or less exotic and give you an opportunity to sound a little bit different. Once you’ve gotten those under your fingertips, the modes of melodic minor and harmonic minor add even more colors to your palette. (It’d be incredibly cool to be able to call one of these modes famously your own.) For more on this, The Advancing Guitarist by Mick Goodrich blew me away (still I haven’t digested 10% of the wisdom in this book).
  9. Formula playing – As an extension of modes, formula playing gives you access to sonic energies that are not predefined by typical western conventions. For example, all modes have a formula (e.g. Dorian is 12b3456b7). You can create your own formulas (e.g. “let’s give 1b34b5b7 a shot”) and then use your knowledge of intervals and the names on the fretboard. By not borrowing from any conventional mode or idiom, your sonic possibilities are literally endless. This is the universe where Wayne Krantz resides, and for this, he has a really cool book called An Improviser’s OS.
  10. Think About and Figure Out Who “You” Are – More difficult than all of the others combined, one has to work toward achieving the bridge between his or her unique internal voice and its outward sonic manifestation. By letting go of any burdensome thoughts or inhibitions weighing you down, certain sounds will resonate with you and your life experiences. Releasing this manifestation of who you are out into the public and having it well received is probably more fulfilling than having all of the money in the world, and in the end, fulfillment is what we desire as guitar players.

Traveling, Too. For me, traveling has done a great deal for my sound. Immediately upon landing in Europe, the notes and chords I reached for on my guitar were suddenly insanely different. I don’t know why but I feel that it’s opened up my playing by lowering my musical inhibitions and self-conceptions of what I should sound like, which I think suffered from the same level of copycat syndrome that most of us try to overcome.

Depression

Hmm.

The Story of Boltzmann. If you think back to your old high school or college Physics class, you may remember something called the Stefan-Boltzmann constant. The Boltzmann part of the Stefan-Boltzmann comes from a dude named Ludwig Boltzmann, an Austrian physicist from the 1800s. The story goes that when he presented his soon-to-be legendary findings to the scientific community, he was laughed off of the floor for their utter stupidity and impossibly flawed plausibility. Needless to say, he was dejected, and sadly, he ended up hanging himself as a result. Years later, his findings were proven to be correct. Clearly, it pays to be persistent.

The guitar community can be a tough place, and so can the public appetite for music. While people wouldn’t laugh you off of a stage by throwing vegetables, the general feeling of no one giving a damn and lack of any degree of commercial success can be crippling. Guitar players are stereotypically and notoriously emotional creatures, and understandably so—our brains and hearts are hypersensitive to the vibration of sound.

A few years back, I saw Steven Wilson give a talk at the IFC Theater on W 4th in New York for the screening of his documentary on the sad state of music since the invention of the iPod. One of the things he said really stuck with me when he said something to the effect of, “When you write up a resume and get rejected to a job, that’s not really you getting rejected. But when you write music, you’re creating a true representation of who you are, making rejection very painful.”

The point is that guitar players should never give up but also know that it is incredibly unhealthy to focus solely on music without developing other parts of life. Not only will you suffer financially (unless you’re a trust fund baby), but music is psychologically demanding in a way that non-musicians will never come to realize, and not applying your mind to anything else is potentially very destructive.

Argh

Why isn’t there more good stuff out there?

The Survival of the Guitar Depends on It. The guitar may be at a crossroads at the present moment in time. Hip-hop and electro dominate the airwaves and guitar is becoming less and less prevalent. Although there are plenty of new awesome guitar talents (new players like Misha Mansoor/Bulb and Andy McKee come to mind), the world needs more creative imagination and fresh playing. No one wants to hear the same old licks. In order for the guitar to live on, every new generation of guitar players needs to spawn new sounds, new licks, new riffs, and fresh flavors in every genre. Now make some awesome music, and thank you for doing so.

Next, Part 3: Charting Innovation vs. Accessibliity

Guitar and Creativity, Part 1: Deceptive Exception and Non-Reception

“There are too many ideas and things and people. Too many directions to go. I was starting to believe the reason it matters to care passionately about something, is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size.”

-Susan Orlean in the movie Adaptation

With the thoughts from a militant mind

With the thoughts from a militant mind

Another Philosophical Introduction. Creativity is a strange concept. It seems that the idea of inspiration and intuitive creation has historically been a topic as nebulous as spirituality or love, described by Ancient Greek poets and writers in cryptic or florid ways. Yes, modern science and brain scanning technology have rationalized it to a certain extent, but I’m just going to focus this blog post on  jotting down my thoughts regarding innovation in the context of the canvas that 6 strings and 20-something frets gives us.

Evil Knievel. The obvious problem with finding a new sound on the guitar is that while there is infinite space for creating something new, most of it sounds like ass. Of course, there’s the additional layer of friction due to potential lack of public accessibility—the fine line between clever and legendary genius vs. idiosyncratic and gratuitous iconoclasm, no matter how good the guitar playing sounds to your ear or mine. This dichotomy often has to do with arbitrary factors like marketability and Gladwell’s Tipping Point.

Evel Knievel

Uh oh.

There is additional activation energy to even be mentioned in the running of the (new) bulls: doing something truly creative. A guitar player can sleep easy at night taking refuge in the safe haven of the acceptable and established. For the vast majority of guitar players, any spark of inclination to deviate from the norm quickly fades into darkness, because of the fear of a leap of danger comparable to an Evil Knievel stunt—will the leap be too scary and will I land in one piece?

Oddly enough, an instrument so iconic for subversion often reveals behind its facade conformity with a false aesthetic of non-conformity. This sheep mentality I speak of refers to the juggling of the same licks from the universal lexicon of guitaristic phrases that by now have become cliché not only to the attentive guitar aficionado, but clearly also to the general public, given the general decline and lack of mainstream interest in guitar playing for some time now. You know who you are, pentatonic blues wankers and 3-note per string shredders (join the club).

Synthesis vs. Creativity. There’s an additional dimension in the discussion of creativity: the widely indiscernable but decisive difference between the skilled jugglers and do-or-die creators. The juggler is so well versed and educated in the lexicon and its innovators that he adeptly and fluidly strings paragraphs together, never dropping any sentence because of his second-natured fluency—the essence of synthetic imagination. The juggler has a leg up on the copycat who is undoubtedly an imitator for having one primary influence, whereas the player who juggles many influences is simply not a fool. However, that mentality is not the stuff “genius” is made of. We guitar players know this because most of us fall under the juggler category, and can therefore easily spot others of the sort.

Guitar Detour

Is there a Google Maps for this stuff?

Creative imagination is what makes legends. Napoleon Hill said of it, “This faculty functions only when the conscious mind is working at an exceedingly rapid rate, as for example, when the conscious mind is stimulated through the emotion of a strong desire.” I admit I haven’t done the reading on the neuroscience, but tapping into a pool of inspiration from some sort of alternate dimension in the universe seems to be the general gist of how it’s usually described in layman’s terms. Of course, it’s difficult to get to creative imagination without first informing your playing with the synthetic approach. Usually, the creative road is preceded by some detour from the synthetic road, an offramp instantiated by a sound’s resonance with any individual’s particular personal circumstances or experiences. However early or late the detour happens along this synthetic road is the primary variable here, yielding creativity in idioms of varying complexity, whatever that’s worth (not much for the uninitiated).

Berlin and The Freshness of Different and New. I just arrived in Berlin, Germany earlier this week. Berlin is a place where creativity, individuality, being yourself and “non-stereotypical German” attitudes about life are everywhere. Somehow the remnants and artifacts of the old Eastern communist section have given way to a hotbed for artists and start-ups.

Berlin Street Art

Berlin: Wie geht es Ihnen?

Start-ups make a funny comparison with musical creativity. In my mind, the parallel has most to do with the risk-taking involved with both. The well-publicized odds for startup success are abysmal—for every Facebook, there are a gazillion failed ideas. Likewise, at every skill level from Jack White “idiocy” to Berklee erudition, there are very seldom people who can actually make a living from guitar playing. From the hundred or so studs per class coming out of Berklee every year for guitar, probably 2 or 3 get to live the professional dream, not to mention other schools like New School, Musicians Institute, etc. Being a starving creative takes balls, just like laying it all on the line to try an idea that probably won’t go anywhere.

There’s another important parallel, though. While the statistical odds for either are more or less akin to flopping the nuts in Texas Hold’em, pure probabilities are not the name of the game, as naysayers and skeptics would have you think. It seems that every success story has a lot more to do with just raw luck of the draw, with many factors coming down to the trite but impactful qualities we’re used to reading about—persistence, passion, originality, etc. We’re not talking about Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness—there’s more than plenty of “alpha“ to go around here (if you don’t get that reference please don’t punch me).

There’s a very important difference between musical creativity and start-ups, though. I think the guitar listener rewards true innovation more than the tech world does (first-mover arguments welcome). A new technology can floor the hacker community but rarely does the modern scientific tinkerer/discover single-handedly grab market relevance, while concurrently, there were tons of social networks before Facebook, just as one example. However, IMO guitar players are very well rewarded for doing something truly both fresh and refreshing. Name any guitar great and he likely achieved immortality and spawned countless copycats with the creative and not synthetic approach to imagination.

Of course, innovation is just one prerequisite—marketability often matters, especially in (or since) the rock/MTV world. No one ever thought Eddie Van Halen didn’t look like the baddest mofo in the history of the universe…but he also musically elevated the instrument like no one ever, according to some accounts. More on this in Part 3.

Matt Bellamy Muse Guitar

Who looks down at Matt Bellamy’s innovations?

Rock, Pop and Songs. There needs to be a clear distinction made between heavily guitar-focused music and song-focused music. Everything I’ve said so far has more to do with heavily guitar-centered songs where the brilliance of the guitar elevates the band/artist to widespread exposure. This paradigm is the sole determinant in jazz, a typical driver in metal and a historically more prevalent factor in rock and roll’s heyday, but also associated with the fame of recent rock innovators like Matt Bellamy from Muse.

In contrast, in song-oriented rock/pop or singer/songwriter-type music, the focus in most cases is purely on the talent of the vocalist and the song’s hooks. The progressions are often highlighted by platitude after platitude, but there’s always something compelling about the tone of the vocalist’s voice—and when you hear the hook, you really freaking hear it. But this is guitar dork, a guitar blog for guitar dorks, and guitar is interesting, so if you don’t like it, you can f*** off. :-)

Next, Part 2: How All This Creativity BS Relates To You, The Guitar Player. Read it here

 

A Guitar Player’s Visitor’s Guide to New York City

Manny's Music Old

Lots of guitar history in the city.

New York City. Whether on business or leisure, travelers often like to waste hours in their room fiddling through TV channels for a movie or the next riveting episode of “The Voice”. However, as the most unique, iconic and happening city in the world, New York is a terrible place to do so if you’re there only for a short while.

There are countless shows, landmarks, tours and sights to see in the Big Apple, but this blog post will focus on what visiting guitar players should check out. Needless to say, New York City is not only home to awesome guitar shops and multiple national acts on stage any given night, but also home to some of the world’s best local talent.

Guitar Shops. Spending an afternoon visiting NYC’s local guitar shops is one of the most relaxing ways to enjoy your trip to New York. As expected, you’ll find flagship Sam Ash and Guitar Center locations, but of course the goodies are the more low-key indie-ish guitar shops.

48th St. Historically, the center of the NYC guitar universe has lived on 48th St between 6th and 7th, a few blocks north of the most touristy spot in Manhattan, Times Square. Here used to lie Manny’s Music, where scores of famous rock stars would stop by for gear during rock’s heyday. Unfortunately the area isn’t what it used to be—Manny’s was since bought out by Sam Ash, who pretty much monopolized the whole block with big business attitude, and then closed down Manny’s. It’s still a cool place to visit for the nostalgia, but there is one hidden gem on the block: the Rudy’s Music amp room. For years it was hidden in the 3rd or 4th floor of a building next to a strip club around the corner with a buzzer at the door, but has recently moved to the more logically located 4th floor above Rudy’s Music. The amp room has one of the coolest collections of Mesa Boogie, Bogner and other modern-type amps I’ve ever seen. Much more importantly, because there are usually only one or two other people tops in the room, the spot is probably the city’s coolest place to be able to crank up an amp to gig volume and really hear those tubes sing.

Near Penn Station. A short walk south, Sam Ash in the past 12 months just opened a new superstore location a few blocks west of Penn Station on 34th St. between 8th and 9th. With the way the MI (Musical Instrument) business has been trending down earnings-wise over the past few years, I’m not sure how Sam Ash was able to pull it off, but the location is pristine with a very impressive inventory of new guitars and some good used ones as well, and should give the brand the increased exposure it was looking for in relocating.

Matt Brewster repairman

Matt Brewster at 30th St. Guitars, Best Tech in New York

From there, you can walk downtown to 30th St and turn left to find my personal favorite guitar spot in the world, 30th Street Guitars between 7th and 8th.  Here you will find an impressive assortment of used guitars, a room to crank up cool used amps with the door closed, and one the city’s most diverse collection of effects, both new, used and boutique. The shop is owned and run by a cool guy named Matt Brewster, who in the back room repairs, upgrades and sets up guitars, amps and effects. After years of disappointment with other guitar techs, I haven’t bothered going anywhere else with my guitar needs since he literally does everything, and very knowledgably and proficiently too. Ask the guys in the front if he’s in, and go introduce yourself—I’m sure he’d love it. And if you’re lucky, you may spot a celebrity in there, since famous people walk in and out of there all time to say hey to their favorite repairman.

Union Square. Next, either take the train or a relaxing 25 minute walk downtown to Union Square to see Guitar Center on 14th St. Yes, you’ll find Guitar Center anywhere, but there’s a solid inventory of insanely highly priced custom shop and vintage gear here to ogle at. Just try to avoid the staff, many of whom will give you dirty looks and annoyingly bitch at you if they don’t think you’re going to buy anything. Well, if they kick you out, you know you can just walk to Union Square and chill out on the steps.

The Village. Then head south to Greenwich Village, and on the way be sure to walk through Washington Square Park, which is incredibly vibrant when the weather is nice. (Bonus points if you set yourself up with a guitar for donations, stand in the fountain with your shoes off, or hit on a stranger who is very possibly also from out of town.) Go to Bleecker Street and check out Matt Umanov Guitars. Here is another cool guitar spot with some really cool gear, often with talented guitar players jamming out in front of the store.

While you’re in the village, if you have an interest in hip vinyl record stores, there are cool record shops in the area like Generation Records with tons of records, CDs, T-shirts and poster. My favorite part of these shops is the metal selection—there is so much metal that it adds an authentic, unique flavor to the store.

Walking east on Houston to Ludlow will take you to Ludlow Guitars, but first, do yourself a favor and take an empty stomach to Katz’s on the corner. I don’t care how much of an “institution” or whatever Katz’s is, it is world-renowned because the pastrami sandwiches are damn good and worth the hefty price tag. Ahh!

Ludlow Guitars is a classy and impressive guitar shop with a very, very sweet inventory of guitars and amps. It may be odd, but I’ve always been most impressed by their selection of guitar pickups, which seems to be more robust than any other location in New York.

Leaving Manhattan. OK, you’ve covered the major guitar stops in Manhattan, and at this point you may only have time for one of the following 2 choices, but should by all means do both if possible:

1)   Do you love acoustic guitar? If so, take the ferry to Staten Island and check out Mandolin Brothers, which has the city’s coolest collection of acoustics. The ferry ride is very relaxing and soothing and should be done anyway, but it’s worth the bus ride to Mandolin Brothers just to see their nice sounding acoustics. The staff is really friendly and down to earth, and there are plenty of really crisp acoustic amps to test the sound with. Also, if I remember correctly, every guitar will have 2 prices, one for credit card payment, and a cheaper one for cash/debit card.

2)   Do you love jazz guitar? Then go east to Long Island City in Queens and check out Sadowsky Guitars. Sadowsky makes the signature models for jazz legends Jim Hall and Jimmy Bruno, although they are insanely highly priced. Of course, there are non-archtops, but the real awesomeness is in the high-end jazz boxes. Apparently Sadowsky Guitars used to be a go-to repair shop as well, but I’ve heard that it’s not quite what it used to be in the old times.

Bargain. Remember, if you intend on buying a guitar at any of these guitar shops and bringing it home snugly in the overhead compartment above your plane seat, always bargain! Just bringing up the topic by saying something like “Can we do something about the price?” will get you a lower price 80% of the time. Discounts are built into the sales systems even at Guitar Center and Sam Ash, and the smaller local shops will definitely be willing to drop the price so you walk out of there with the guitar of your dreams.

World Famous Venues. In the evening, any guitar player visitor should check out as much live guitar as possible. On any given night, the New Yorker is able to select from a bevy of international-tier talent at the doorstep. One idea would be to just go to Ticketmaster or a site like Killertours to see who’s playing, or browse the websites for the major famous venues like BB King’s, Beacon Theater, Webster Hall, Nokia Theater Times Square, Irving Plaza, Terminal 5, Bowery Ballroom, and Radio City Music Hall. Strangely enough, I’ve always liked concertjoe.com, which is really lo-fi but has once in a while given cool ideas for what to check out at night.

Local Rock. However, you’re going to want to see something more uniquely and distinctly local New York. If you like rock, Piano’s and Arlene’s Grocery usually has some cool local rock acts cranking it up. I’ve never been heavily into indie, but I’ve always enjoyed visits to places like Cake Shop next to Piano’s. Needless to say there is a ton of indie to check out in New York, especially in Brooklyn.

Jazz. If you like jazz, you are in luck because you are in the jazz capital of the world. Village Vanguard is a must see, especially when guys like Bill Frisell, Jim Hall or Kurt Rosenwinkel are in town. Make a reservation, get a discount if you have a student ID, and hit up Two Boots down the block, where my favorite funky pizza slice in the world is. Iridium one stop north of Times Square on the 1 train is also an excellent venue, with guys like Allan Holdsworth and Paul Gilbert taking the stage. The Blue Note by the W 4th St. stop is also an iconic place to check out. The selection also includes The Jazz Standard on 27th and Smoke way uptown in Morningside Heights, which would be a good opportunity to see the Columbia campus.

However, maybe because the price is right, my favorite jazz spot is the 55 Bar on Christopher St. The other jazz venues cost a ton and often require you to buy drinks or dinner, but the 55 Bar has awesome local talent melting the walls in an intimate setting while the rest of the city has no idea of the epicness that’s going on inside. If possible, going on a night where Mike Stern or Wayne Krantz is playing would guarantee a face-melting experience.

Music in New York City

Bleecker St is like a mini-Austin.

Bleecker St. Lastly, a good place to see live music is Bleecker St., which I call “Little Austin”. At The Bitter End you’ll find local as well as travelling talent every night, and once in a while you’ll get a stud like Oz Noy who will blow you away. The Red Lion does a good job vetting the talent because every night I’m there the quality of the musicians is very high. If you get there early enough before the DJ music kicks in, Wicked Willy’s constantly has bands playing and is a really fun place to hang out, especially when cover bands are playing. Back Fence has a small stage for singer/songwriter types. Village Lantern is a fun hangout with bands playing all the time, but probably not on the same caliber talent-wise as a place like The Bitter End or Red Lion. It used to have a cover band with an incredible drummer every Wednesday but they are no longer there, and last I heard, they for some reason phased out the bartenders that made the place cool. You’ll also find historically significant venues like Café Wha around the corner on MacDougal, and at the end of the block is La Laterna, a tiny room where you’ll find some of the best local jazz guitarists. All in all, the area is one of the city’s most vibrant on weekends and worth checking out.

Improve Your Guitar Playing Big Time. Hopefully you’ll find everything you need to give you an awesome experience in New York as a guitar player here. I don’t see any equal anywhere else in the world in terms of a “guitar city”, other than maybe Austin, Texas, if you like blues and bluesy rock. If you like it enough and you’re passionate about the guitar, it’s a great reason to move to New York City if you can pull it off. I guarantee your guitar playing will improve significantly as you immerse yourself in the incredible selection of talent on any given night.

On Cloud 9: Revisiting Nobuo Uematsu

Asian jokes!

I’ve long held the belief that an East Asian society so focused on allocentrism, as opposed to dissonance, stymies creativity and innovation, which inherently seem to be born from subversion–a kind of semi-arrogant disrespect and disregard for authority, and a trait historically very poo-pooed in that region of the world (a whole other topic). Therefore, IMO there really hasn’t been any cool originality musically out of East Asia, like ever.

Except for video game music. I recently revisited some of the soundtrack from the video game series Final Fantasy, all of which was written by Japanese composer, Nobuo Uematsu. Asian nerd jokes aside, some of the music from these video games had a huge impact on me from age 5-10, and I can’t be the only one (side note: I remember even trying to transcribe in elementary school some of the music from Chrono Trigger, a video game which Uematsu helped out with on the musical side). With a palette limited only to crappy SNES MIDI sounds early on, he was able to weave memorable tapestries that seemed to be of another world, a fictional realm that resided only in a bunch of transistors. Listening back now 15 years later, the striking movement and melody in the music still renders Uematsu a severely underrated artist–a relatively unknown musician with a small, passionate (albeit geeky) following.

However, Uematsu’s compositions are very familiar to many of the musically inclined people I know. From this correlation, the conclusion may be drawn that the intricate aural backdrops melted into these games seem to have subconsciously influenced the musical development of  many a musician and music lover. Who would have thought that intense, heavy battle music from some Super Nintendo cartridge would be spawning the next generation of guitar rockers and metalheads? Or that Uematsu’s orchestral arrangements planted the seeds for future students of musical theory? Pretty funny if you think about it, and I bet many would either sneeze at or even dismiss the notion.

I was having a conversation with a bassist friend Josh about the guy, and he turned me on to “The Black Mages”, a group Uematsu put together to perform his compositions. Nobuo Uematsu = badass.

Freakin Fur Elise.

“ANDREW, PLAY FUR ELISE AGAIN!” my dad would shout at me when I was a toddler. Man, I hated the piano with a passion. Like any Asian kid in an Asian family, piano lessons were forced upon me from age 5. It was the bane of my existence—a rigid, tyrannical imposition of dull regiment, drilling into my head boring songs written by dead people from hundreds of years ago. How tragic it was to have to leave a Super Soaker Armageddon down the street because of a stupid piano lesson.

It all changed at 9 years old. I shared a bus with a friend named Jonny, a kid in my class who was really into classic rock but was only free on Fridays for some reason. I remember like yesterday, walking into his room for the first time and seeing that sunburst Stratocaster. “You know Jimi Hendrix?” he asked. When I replied that I had never heard anything by him, he said, “This is called Purple Haze.” He picked up the guitar and began the most badass single note line I had ever heard. I still remember exactly how the distortion sounded, and exactly how he played it. What really caused a paradigm shift was when the chords started coming in. Distorted power chords… Holy shit!

I’d go back to his apartment just to tinker with his guitar so often that his scary older stepbrother called me “The Friday Kid”. I’d try and eek out Tainted Love and You Really Got Me on a single string, and it really sounded like dog doo, but I didn’t care. I remember printing out a tab at his apartment for Don’t Speak by No Doubt, with his mom getting pissed at me for walking in front of the TV on the way back from the computer.

After a few months, being the spoiled kid I was, my mother agreed to take me to Sam Ash in Carle Place to buy me an acoustic guitar. I figured it’d be an easier sell to ask for an acoustic, rather than a noisy, obnoxious electric. side note: The salesperson on that fateful visit, John, still works at the same location today, and it still boggles my mind when we talk shop. After he showed me a cheap used acoustic (which I should have gone with), I opted for a new Yahama acoustic that went for 199.99$. I could not believe my mother was going to buy me a guitar that cost that much! And along with the guitar, a tab book with my favorite Smashing Pumpkins songs.

Oh, the pain on my fingertips for the next few months! It mattered little though—the view was worth the climb. It didn’t matter that when I played guitar for my sister Anna for the first time, she had a puzzled look on her face. I shouted, “It’s Smells Like Teen Spirit!” She just smiled and said “OK”, even though it sounded terrible.

A year later in 6th grade, I was at Costco with my family when I saw a Yamaha Pacifica electric guitar starter kit for 199.99$. It came with a Pacifica guitar, a cable and a little Yamaha amp with a button for distortion. The key factor there was the distortion—I made sure of it. Once again, I begged for it and my mom agreed. I still remember my 2nd sister Hanna saying, “Don’t buy it for him, he’ll never play it.”

Ha. Fast forward to all these years later. The prospect of entertaining anyone at all with the guitar seemed so outside the realm of possibility at that young age. Since then the instrument has become something I’m incredibly passionate about, and has integrated itself into the fiber of my being emotionally, intellectually and interpersonally. However, despite flattering compliments from friends, I can’t imagine ever reaching a skill level that I can feel content with. And even more than being a guitar player, I’m a guitar fan. I’m in awe of the players that are out there, weaving their own universal truths by capturing their playing on recordings, or living and breathing their emotions moment to moment live.

I’d like for this blog to be an outlet for this passion and excitement. Listening to fresh new albums, revisiting legendary old albums, scoping the live music scene, discovering new players, checking out gear, or just waxing philosophy…and who knows, if anyone ends up reading these ramblings and knows of anything I should write about, feel free to e-mail me. It’s about chasing the same excitement, capturing the same overwhelming emotions that flooded my body when I first heard those notes burning through Jonny’s amp, and hopefully passing it on, activating that same thrill and abandon in someone else. The guitar has found itself in some form in thousands of cultures across the globe—it’s not going anywhere, even with all the cool new electronic stuff that’s making its way out there. Besides, musicians have been wooing romantic partners with the guitar for thousands of years, and anything that helps people get laid like that on such a primal level will never go out of style…