Archive for the ‘Playing well with others’ Category

925 Guitarists and Me

Posted by Brian on 30th April 2015 in General Music, Journal, Memorabilia, Playing well with others

Last week I had a very interesting experience. A friend had sent me a link to a marketing project from Mirvish Productions in Toronto. They were looking for 100 guitarists to go to Mirvish Theatre and play the song “Falling Slowly” from the musical “Once”. We both signed up.

When we got our confirmation e-mail they indicated that about 500 guitarists had signed up.

Outside the Mirvish Theatre

Outside the Mirvish Theatre

Three of us headed into Toronto on the appointed day and, from the moment that we parked, I had a feeling that this was going to be something special. Almost everyone in the parking lot was unloading a guitar and as we walked around the block to the entrance it seemed that every other person was carrying a guitar.

We joined the line outside of the theatre and before long we were inside collecting the promised pairs of tickets to the actual show. The event seemed very well organized, with people directing traffic at regular intervals.

We were assigned our seats and marveled at the variety of both people and guitars that had come out.  Of course there were some there that were hoping to get “discovered” and others who ducked every time a camera went past – because the excuse they gave at work didn’t involve playing guitar.  Some were experienced players and others were fairly new to the instrument and even a bit nervous despite the relative anonymity of playing in such a large group.  We also ran into 4 other guitarists from our little town of Uxbridge – turns out there were others there too.

A number of the cast came on stage and gave us some instruction as to how the song would go and then we played three “takes”.  I was pleasantly surprised by how good it sounded! They announced that the three takes were sufficient and within half an hour of starting, we were enjoying lunch at Fran’s Restaurant.

Here is the resulting video:

And here is CTV’s coverage:

At the end of it all, they announced that 926 guitarists had taken part!  Certainly the largest group I’ve ever played in – and the tickets they gave us were pretty decent too.

And now I can say “I was there.”

Tune Up!

Posted by Brian on 16th January 2012 in Beginners, Ear Training, Musicianship, Performing, Playing well with others, Rant

“I thought that the professional touch that made your set was the fact that your guitar was in a proper state of tune.”

I recently played a short set at a local open mic, where a musician friend was in attendance and I received the preceding note the following day. I sometimes forget how sensitive some people are to tuning – my ear seems to be less discriminating than most. I can hear when something is out of tune, but it doesn’t grate on me the way that it does some people. Having said that, I do recognize the importance of tuning.

It actually took me years to figure out tuning. Then one day, the clouds parted and I saw the light. Not sure what the trigger was, but suddenly I “got it”. For others, tuning is as natural as breathing. But the important thing is that you must always strive to play in tune, especially when playing for (or with) others.

Every time you pick up your instrument, you should check the tuning. These days, it is much easier than when I was a budding young rockstar. You can now buy electronic tuners for as little as $15 (though I would recommend spending a little more). And while I think that you should always try to tune by ear first, you can easily check your work with the tuner.

If you get used to playing in tune all of the time, it becomes way easier to tell if you are out of tune, and you may even get to the point where you will be able to critique other performers’ tuning… Best of all, you are way less likely to annoy your audience, even if it is just your cat.

If Only I Had a Better Guitar…

This is an old blog entry from Tuck Andress of “Tuck & Patti” fame. If you aren’t familiar with him, you should look him up, but all you need to know for now is that Tuck is a guitarist of the first order… and he has found three bits of wisdom that some of us never find…

Tuck & Patti: It’s the Guitar’s Fault

Rant: The Most Dangerous Instrument…

Posted by Brian on 17th June 2011 in General Music, Jamming, Mildly Off-Topic, Playing well with others, Rant

Today I’m going to let off a little steam. I’m going to talk about what a friend calls “the most dangerous musical instrument ever devised”. And no, I’m not referring to Woody Guthrie labeling his guitar with “This Machine Kills Fascists”. I’m talking about the dreaded tambourine.

It’s a simple instrument, so it must be simple to play, right?

It seems that at every open jam, song circle, or folk festival, someone brings one along thinking that “it will be fun”. And it may well be – for the one playing it. But, for everyone else within earshot, it can be a song killer. The tambourine, by its very nature is a powerful rhythm instrument – and in the right hands can really fill out a song, but sadly it is rarely found in the right hands. It is a rare player that can maintain a steady tempo with a tambourine, and it is a rare musician who can ignore it when it is being played off the beat. At best, it is played a fraction of a second behind the beat, slowly turning every tune into a dirge. At worst, it is rhythmically “all-over-the-map” leaving everyone wondering where the next downbeat will fall.

I should clarify, tambourines don’t kill songs, people with tambourines kill songs. In fact, one of my greatest “festival moments” involved a tambourine solo. We were at The Lunenburg Folk Festival at a percussion workshop given by a professor of percussion from Acadia University. He came out on stage and sat down, pulling out a tiny tambourine with one lonely jingle on it. I’ll admit it, I rather sarcastically thought, “Here we go… forty-five minutes of this???” He then proceeded to bring down the house with an amazing tambourine solo and went on to enthrall us for the rest of the workshop.

So, in the hands of a trained percussionist the tambourine can be a wonderful instrument, but for the rest of us, we need to do everyone a favour and leave it in the store. And if it’s too late for that (as it is for me), then at least leave it at home.

Ten Things…

Posted by Brian on 17th May 2011 in Guitar, Performing, Playing well with others

I recently came across this list that was posted on my favourite guitar forum: 10 Things All Guitarists Should Be Able To Do. It is a list of ten things that any guitarist who plans on performing should work on. (And, in my humble opinion, all guitarists should have “performing” on their bucket list.)

This particular list caught my attention because number 2 is one of my pet peeves: Tune your instrument! It seems that so many musicians these days don’t bother to tune their instruments before performing, or more accurately, they don’t tune to the instruments around them; so while they may be in tune with themselves, they are not in tune with the other performers.

Like most top 10 lists, this one has its flaws. There is some overlap – for example, item numbers 3 (sustain), 4 (vibrato) and 8 (timing) are really just subsections of number 5 (phrasing) – and it is definitely weighted towards playing electric guitar. But it is all good advice, nevertheless.

If you’re interested, you can read (or join) the discussion generated by this list at Guitars


How to: Jamming

Posted by Brian on 8th June 2010 in How to:..., Jamming, Performing, Playing well with others

One of the great joys of playing music is to play it with other people, but most of us don’t have either the time, the talent, or the courage to commit to playing in a band. So for us, the best reasonable option is jamming, but what exactly is jamming?

According to my 1980 edition of Webster’s Dictionary, a jam session is “a meeting of jazz musicians for the purpose of improvising together”. Most musicians I know would tell you that you don’t have to be a jazz musician to jam, nor does it necessarily involve a lot of improvising. I would more broadly define jamming as an informal gathering of musicians for the purpose of learning and sharing music.

The most basic jam occurs when one musician invites another to his or her house to play some music and they take turns showing each other songs and trying to play them together.

If you want to try jamming, find a couple of friends who also play and invite them over. Ask them to come prepared to lead a few songs if they are comfortable.  Sit in a circle and work around the circle taking turns leading a song – those who are not comfortable can just say “pass”. As host, you should go first. Show people the basic chord progression(s) first and then start into the song. Be prepared to sing to get the song going, usually people will join in and you’re probably not as bad a singer as you think (no matter what your older siblings tell you) and if you are truly terrible, it with actually help the other musicians loosen up a bit. Try some predictable 3 and 4 chord songs to get things going. By predictable, I mean that the chord progression pretty much repeats itself for the whole song or only changes for the chorus. For more complicated songs, it doesn’t hurt to have some lead sheets (melody and chords) or fake sheets (lyrics and chords) to help people along.

As people get comfortable, you can try soloing. Just before the last verse of a song with a predictable chord progression ask the person to your left or right if they want to try a solo and work your way around the circle, repeating the progression, until everyone who wants to try a solo has had an opportunity. It is good manners (and musicianship) for everyone else to play more quietly when someone is soloing. You don’t usually need to point this out, just set a good example.

If you want to make things more interesting, try to have a theme once in a while when you go around the circle: “Two-chord Songs”, “Love (or Hate) Songs”, “Story Songs”, and “Songs From Before You Were Born” are some good themes to start with.

Finally, don’t be afraid to experiment. These guidelines are a good introduction to jamming but there are many variations that you can try. Some regular jams develop a songbook that they use and add to over time, others will purchase several copies of a “fake book” and use that. Some are for guitarists only, others seek a wide variety of musicians. Still others focus just on blues, or bluegrass, or other genres of music. The main thing is to keep it fun.