Friday, April 8, 2011

Becoming a Better Musician - Part 3 - Something Unfamiliar

In my last installment, I talked about trying out an instrument that is in some way related to your main instrument as a way to begin expanding your music horizons, today we will talk about the opposite. Tackling an instrument that is complete foreign to you as a musician. For me this takes the form of the drum set.

I've been interested in learning drums for some time, but felt I would not be coordinated enough, or at least that was my excuse. Well recently I decided to just go for it and here are my suggestions if you are looking at jumping into some uncharted waters.

First, shop around. If you are looking into a new instrument that tends to be expensive, make sure you check out   eBay or Craigslist first. I especially like Craigslist, because you can deal locally and sometimes work out a better deal. Do this before laying out big cash for something that you may end up hating.

Second, buy "good enough". I think not buying in the right range is a problem. When you buy cheap stuff, it probably will never sound right. Do your research and make sure that what you are buying is decent stuff. That being said, unless you are rolling in the dough, don't go crazy expensive. I find that starting with gear that is too good, leaves little incentive to upgrade and learn about equipment. If you drop $1800 on your first guitar, chances are you won't try another one for a long time and you may have not picked the right one for you. Learn a little about your new instrument before making a huge investment in it. Besides, if you pick up a used instrument at a decent price, once you feel it's time to upgrade, you may be able to get out of it pretty much what you put into it and use that towards your upgrade. For me, I bought a used Yamaha kit from a friend, and got some old cymbals and hardware from another.  I've already replaced the kick pedal with something new and have started thinking about a new cymbal or two.

Tommy Igoe Groove EssentialsThird, much like learning a familiar instrument, get some pointers or take a few lessons to get you started. My friend Luke DeJaynes from Groove Kitchen Studio is an incredible drummer and teaches percussion at Greenville College. I've already picked his brain for a few starting tips (I'm sure he's tired of it already). I've also gotten suggestions from him about written resources that would fit my needs as a long time musician and self driven learner. He recommended the book Groove Essentials by Tommy Igoe which is a companion to a DVD of the same name. The book came with a CD of mp3s (minus drum tracks) to play along with. So far it's been great. It gives many basic 'must know' grooves with some variations on each groove. Then it gives a drum chart for the mp3 play along track for that groove. I've looking forward to some of the more complex grooves in the book. I plan on writing a full review of the book after I've worked my way through it.

Fourthly, submerse yourself in the culture of your new instrument. Check out magazines, websites, forums, etc. Learn about styles, gear, and anything else that will help you connect with it. After that, it's practice, practice, practice. Then once you start feeling confident, find an opportunity to play out on your new axe (no matter what form it takes). You will find that after you get to a level of comfort, you will start to see it effect your overall musicality. When you play your main gig, you will be thinking about where your other instrument fits in and not just about what space you can fill. You become a more well rounded musician with more than one point of view. Look out though, this could become addictive :)

What instruments have you taken up beyond your 'first love', and what did you find was helpful and what wasn't so great?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Becoming a Better Musician - Part 2 - Something Familiar

I had a friend growing up who could pick up just about anything and make music with it. A horn, A guitar, a piano, a drum set, it didn't matter, he was a musician and this was just another instrument. I envied his talent. So for the longest time I focused heavily on the guitar and am pretty happy with what I've accomplished, but this did not make me good at those other things. Over time I realized that I wanted more out of being a musician. I went to college and studied music. I was exposed to many different instruments and styles, but never strayed far from my beloved guitar. It is only within the last couple years (now 24 years after starting with the guitar) that I am branching out. I've branched out in 2 ways. One way that feels familiar and one way that is completely foreign. In this post I want to talk about the somewhat familiar way in which I am growing.

Hal Leonard Mandolin MethodFor Christmas, my wife and kids got me a mandolin. Now at first glance, if you are unfamiliar with a mandolin, you would think it is a mini guitar. While there are some similarities in playing mechanics which makes it feel familiar to a guitarist, it is a very different instrument.

First, for someone like myself who has been playing guitar for a long time, the most obvious difference is the size. It takes a lot of extra dexterity to get your fingers in those little frets. But even a guy like me with big hands can do it. This would be true of any new instrument. Getting a grip on mechanics is very important, don't just assume you will know how to play it. Ask people who know, watch YouTube videos, take a couple lessons to get yourself started.

Secondly, the tuning of a mandolin is different from a guitar. Some think of it as an upside down guitar and you merely 'flip the chords over'. While this works to a point. Wrapping your head around an instrument tuned in 5ths rather than (mostly) 4ths is a challenge. It puts your fretboard theory to the test. You need to think about how things are done as a mandolin player, not as a guitarist playing mandolin. So putting my music theory and knowledge to work, I focus on learning why the mandolin works, how chords are built, etc. You  are probably not 11 years old anymore, and don't need to learn by rote. Learn faster by learning smarter.

Third, stylistically, it is a whole new ballgame. I am having to listen to music that I may not have heard before to hear what other do with the instrument. Bluegrass, Celtic and other styles. They may not be your favorite, but hearing new sounds regularly will help your ear and replicating new sounds will help you grow. This broadening of your horizons is what we are after in the first place. Even if you want to use your new instrument in a new and novel way, learning its roots is important too.

Do you play Drums? try a different percussion instrument,  Keyboards? Try the marimba.  A horn? you have a ton of options. Guitar? Try banjo, violin or mandolin. Bass? Try cello or Chapman stick. Find an instrument that feels a little like home, but is at the same time a little bit of an adventure.

Tell me what familiar instrument you have taken up in order to broaden your horions in the comments below.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

RiffWorks T4 for Recording & Practicing

RiffWorks T4 is a free 'lite' version of Sonoma Wire Works program Sonoma Wire Works RiffWorks Guitar Recording Software. RiffWorks is a 'riff based' multitrack recording program, which at first seems a little odd, most people who are used to recording think about laying down a whole track for a song at once. Instead RiffWorks lets you define 'riffs' that have multiple layers (the T4 version allows 4 layers and the paid version, 24) and an 'InstantDrummer' track. Then once each of your riffs is done, you arrange them into a song. 


One requirement is an ASIO compliant input source. If you are running most types of audio interfaces, they should work, One case you might run into trouble is the line input on your sound card. If it doesn't show up, you may need to use a program called ASIO4ALL which emulates ASIO compatibility for your non ASIO sound card. For my setup, I am using an old Echo Layla PCI that seems to run well enough. ( I would like to upgrade to something like Echo AudioFire4 which is a Firewire interface, but that is beside the point.)


There  is an 'amp' section where you can choose an amp VST plugin that will get recorded with your layer, there are 2 amp models included with T4, IK Multimedia AmpliTube® Duo LE Studio Devil's BVC. If you have a VST based amp plugin already (or other VST effect) you could add it here. 

There are also real time effects you can add: filter, shaper, EQ section, compressor, modulation effects, delay and reverb.


The InstantDrummer tracks are like an intelligent drum loop, that you can adjust drumming intensity and select various 'parts' to go with each of your riffs. There are over 150 InstantDrummer packs available for download from the Sonoma online store (for $9.99 each) in various styles, base tempos and time signatures. They all have a preview audio so you can check them out before you buy.

T4 as a Digital Audio Scratchpad

One of the things that I like to do when practicing a scale, or solo is to play it against changes. With T4, it is very easy to choose a drum track,a time signature,a tempo and a number of measures, then record a set of changes. After you stop recording and press play, your looping changes are ready to play against.

Other times I've used the InstantDrummer as a more tolerable metronome when my click click click becomes to annoying. You don't need to record to use it, just pick a drum part and press play. 

When it comes to recording though, to be honest, I have not attempted to record a full song with RiffWorks. For me it seems to work much better as a digital sound scratchpad. Great for demoing ideas for parts of song. Then taking them to something more full featured (like Cubase or Nuendo).

One area where I do plan on using more is in generating play along tracks for my guitar students.  Creating a riff, having it repeat 16 or 32 times, exporting it and sending my students an mp3 would be a pretty painless process.

So check it out and let me know if you are using T4.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Becoming a Better Musician - Part 1 - Going back to the Text

I want to start a series of blog posts here concerning how to become a better musician and some strategies for doing it. In this first post I wanted to start somewhere simple, that being on your main instrument. Whatever it may be: piano, drums, guitar, bass, whatever. When someone asks "What instrument do you play?" what is the first thing you say. That's the one we want to talk about.

If you have played an instrument long enough, you will no doubt get to a point where you feel you are proficient. Maybe not as good as you once hoped you would be, but at least good enough for whatever gig you find yourself in. I made the mistake of resting in this point for a couple years time and didn't grow at all because of it. Those are definitely years I wish I had back.

Well how can you stretch yourself in your main instrument? My first recommendation would be to find a lesson plan that you have not tried before that will challenge you. Get a method book of some sort that is a notch above your level and dig in. Don't be afraid of trying something a little tough. You want to be the best player you can be? Well, running over that same pentatonic scale for the 10,000th time isn't gonna get you there. Sometimes after beating your head against the wall for a while and not getting any results, you should try a different approach.

My main instrument is the guitar. So here is one recommendation. If you know how to read some standard notation and want a book that will challenge you to learn so much, check out A Modern Method for Guitar - Volumes 1, 2, 3 Complete this is used as the basic text for the Berklee College of Music guitar program. 

If you are a drummer, perhaps something like 4-Way Coordination: A Method Book for the Development of Complete Independence on the Drum Set might be a good challenge for you (It gets rave reviews on Amazon, I think I'll order it), I myself am new to the drums just this year and would love to hear from some drummers about their suggestions for good texts.

But really whatever instrument you play, I'm sure there is something out there what will do the trick. I would suggest that you read reviews of any text before you purchase it, because there is a lot of garbage out there. Spend a little time searching for the right book and dive in. 

What method books or skill books do you recommend for your particular instrument? Leave a comment and let us all know!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Musescore Music Notation

If there is one area where computers and music can really work together, it is musical typesetting. My handwriting is terrible and when I try to write out music, either practice scales for my students, or charts for the band, it is much better when it is typeset. I have been looking for something to use for a while and have been avoiding laying out the money for Finale or Sibelius. That being said, I am a big fan of open source software. So when I found Musescore, still in a beta form, but already very usable, I was very interested.

Musescore is now in it's 1.0 version and is coming along fast! It is available for Windows, Mac and Linux. It currently works well for typesetting standard notation, with support for unlimited staves, 4 voices per stave. It allows for MIDI input and playback. There is great chord name support with chord names that can be transposed with your music. Of course it contains menus full of barline types, note head types, text options,  fingerings, articulations, dynamics, etc. Here is something silly I whipped up for this post in a matter of a couple minutes.
This was a 'save as png'. It was exported at 300 dpi (I resized it) with a transparent background which is nice.The dpi  is selectable in the options menu. Other export types include: PDF, png, svg, postscript, lilypond, MIDI, wav, ogg, flac and MusicXML. So it is pretty versatile in output formats.

Keyboard shortcuts are user definable (which could be handy if you are coming from other software).

Musescore also has a plugin engine that I have not even looked at yet. It has several included plugins for doing various tasks, but since the plugins are written in Javascript, it should be pretty easy to mess with.

There are a few UI issues that are still being hashed out by the developers, but I have found the forums on their site to be extremely friendly and Bug reports are actually looked at and when possible fixed in the source code.

Future Features:

One thing that the current stable version lacks is support for guitar TAB and guitar block chord symbols, but since it is open source, I download and compile a development 'snapshot' daily and support for these features has already been coded and the bugs are being worked out. Not only for guitar, but TAB support for any amount of strings and tunings, with many built in and user definable TAB staffs as well.  I expect we will see these in a stable version soon. It seems like they try to release a new version every 3-4 months, so since 1.0 came out last month, a new updated version shouldn't be too far away.

Overall, I am very glad I found Musescore. It has a great future ahead of it.

You can download Musescore for free at

Are you using Musescore? What are you doing with it? Let us know, we would love to hear.