I am once again, sitting on a German train, heading east to a town called Magdeburg…only thank goodness this time there is no volcano, and my commute will be 5 hours instead of 15.
“Thanks for the memories…”
But I digress…
I just had the first of 2 train rides and got 2 nice hours of warmup and practice in on the first train. Acoustic guitar is luxurious in that it is quiet enough to practice on a train, and no one else hears it due to all the ambient noise. Not many instruments can be practiced just about anywhere!
Last night’s show was a hit, and I am feeling the repertoire deepen, become more natural, less forced and more groovy. There is a maturing process that repertoire goes through, and the maturing can’t be rushed.
Learning an arrangement is a lot like chopping up veggies for soup. You can throw all the ingredients in, but as the saying goes, “it ain’t soup yet”. Living with your songs and arrangemest is like letting the soup simmer and letting the flavors mix. Night after night you get to investigate new angles, moods, ideas – and fingerings.
As I pracitced today I thought back to a brief but critical music lesson that I’d like to share with you. Not only does it have musical meaning, but philosophical meaning as well, which just tickles me.
Last year I had the honor of playing with jazz master drummer Alvin Queen. He’s the best there is in my opinion. He was Oscar Peterson’s last drummer and there are many good drummers – but I and all the musicians will tell you, “theres only one Queen”.
Alvin and I were having coffee and he started telling me about how he teaches drums to students. Mind you, he is “old school”. Nope you won’t find him on a “school faculty” – you’ll find him schooling you and everybody who plays with him.“I tell students to play 3/4 time with their feet. I let them play for a while and then tell them to add their hands. 99.999% of the time, the moment the hands come in, the feet sound weak and fall apart. That’s our starting point. Get the feet solid and never ever leave the groove. The rest is icing on the cake.”
This made me think “how does this apply to guitar?”.
Duh. It didn’t take long for me to realize that in many of my arrangements the “notes” sound great and I have enough technique to play it, but something felt like it was missing. Hmm.
The THUMB!!! If I could treat the thumb like a drummer would treat the feet, allowing that to be the heartbeat, and never, ever, ever, EVER leave or lighten up on the pulse when the fingers enter…well let’s just say a whole new world opened up to me. Easier said than done!
I must emphasize I am not talking about having good “time” – I mean “groove”. Most guitarists can simply alternate their thumb, but to put that right hand thimb – deep, deep in the pocket, and not lose that – is art. Any musician can count…but not every musician can make other people feel a groove, and that – for me, is the goal.
Sure enough, the first time I got to play with Tommy Emmanuel we were backstage and it was 2 minutes before his show was happening. He was in the dressing room with me firing up his version of “Locomotivation” and said “I just gotta get this down in the pocket, that’s all that counts”. Off he ran to open his show and I then hears the same thing blasting from the stage.
So, today I practiced my tunes but made sure that heartbeat was there, not just in my imagination but in that thumb. Practicing very slowly also helps this.
This requires honesty with oneself. Can you sing the drum part to what you are playing? Do you know exactly what the groove should be?
Put your arrangements in the pocket, play a ferocious groove and you will be a happy camper! Get that thumb solid and groovy! By paying attention to this your music can deepen greatly.
Now…git to work! 🙂