Saturday, December 13, 2008

It's all about the groove...

Okay, so if you've seen my band and I play, or if you've caught any of our advertising for gigs or for the CD, you're familiar with our humble little catch phrase, It's all about the groove.

Sounds cute, but is there any real thought behind it? It just means to play what you feel, right? Well, maybe, maybe not. When the current members of Trick Bag first got together, it was our bassplayer, Squid, who immediately stated,
what I find about this music is that it's really about the pocket...
We all agreed, and we're making a lot of music together based on this principle. There's a lot of jazz influence in this concept, in that the music has to breathe and be human. That really entails the musicians really listening to what the other members are playing and reacting to it. This is not an easy task. There really aren't many exercises one can conduct to work on, other than pointing out in rehearsal pieces where you've done something in a solo and the band hasn't followed you. Recording your rehearsals is a good start.

I get ahead of myself. With this newfound listening task, one has to learn to enhance what the other players are doing, which may include laying out at the right times. One of the toughest things for a musician to learn to do is to not play. In our band, our goal is to be satisfied musically. There is a lot of solo space for everyone, but we try to keep things moving for the listener, too. One of the great things in playing music is sounding like a tight arrangement when improvising. Playing together enough to learn each others' licks and phrases is a part of it. When Mark, Squid, Dave, Zeke, etc. come to the end of a solo, I try to make sure I pick up on it and jump in with the tune as if we've rehearsed it. Some of it is guess work. Another part of it is for each member to be responsible for his own phrasing. When I feel like I've made my statement and that I'd like to finish up soloing, or even if I want to do a call-and-response with someone else, I tend to work to a frenetic point, and then slow down my notes, possibly heading to lower notes, signalling the end of what I'm playing. Same as when I'm accompanying; I play longer chordal pieces when I hear that Mark is coming out of his solo. It's like a musical conversation.

This groove thing is pretty abstract. Phrasing together is a big part. Learning to play ahead of the beat or behind the beat is another. When we talk about playing ahead of the beat, this means that we're playing a little early, just before the beat hits. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not the drummer's responsibility to keep the band in time. The drummer is a musician just like the rest of us. We're all responsible for our own timekeeping. I good drummer can certainly drag the rest of a band forward or backward in the groove, but I have also played way behind some drummers to keep them from rushing and speeding up the tempo. Try to listen for the kick drum and the snare hits and make mental note as to whether the drummer is behind or ahead of the beat.

Another issue for all to understand: swing, or shuffle grooves. I can't tell you how annoying it is to deal with the far too many musicians who don't understand what a shuffle is. The simple definition is when 8th note rhythms are uneven, with a long-short-long-short feel when the count would be 1+2+, etc. This can be considered a shuffle, a swing feel, a triplet feel, etc. This would mean that the 8th notes played would sound more like a "1+ah, 2+ah" feel. This would mean that the first 8th note (the "1") sounds twice as long as the 2nd 8th note (the "+"). This is, of course, a simplification. As tempos vary, the ratio of the length of the 8th notes change a bit, with the 8th notes being closer to even 8th notes at a faster tempo. In a jazz example, listen to saxophonist Charlie Parker and/or guitarist Pat Martino for closer-to-straight 8th notes at faster tempos. Many people play in this style, but don't necessarily understand what is different than straight 8th note tunes. They just play what they hear. However, this is a problem particularly when a group has to alternate between the two feels.

What's even less understood is a shuffle 16th note feel. Far less people understand this concept, but all have heard it. Trained drummers sometimes call this a half-time shuffle. That's an okay label; however, the tunes that this can be heard on are very obviously counted as "1-e-&-ah 2-3-&-ah..." etc. This would be where the first 16th note is longer than the 2nd 16th note. Much of New Orleans funk features this feel. It's standard to have different degrees of this shuffle, and it's important that all musicians in the ensemble can handle this groove. Listen to examples of The Meters' "Cissy Strut", Tower Of Power's "Credit", Ivan Neville's version of "Fortunate Son", etc. for examples of the 16th note shuffle, or the "funk shuffle." I'll try to record some examples of my own, but for now, try Youtube:

It's all about the groove, baby!

Thursday, December 11, 2008


Okay, the beginning of an era (error?). My name's Mike Crutcher, and I've been performing and teaching this music thing for over 25 years. I teach between 50-60 private students per week, and there's always new stuff coming up for questions, so I figured it would be a good idea to get this stuff down in writing.

First, I'm a guitarist. I pride myself in being able to fit into many different music situations. I've performed in my own classic rock groups, in top-40/wedding bands, pit orchestras for musical theatre, blues groups, jazz ensembles, rock trios, etc. This amalgamation of performing groups necessitates my being able to play many styles, which is aided by my interest in listening to all types of music.

I find that most people are quite stuck on the music that they either grew up with or have become accustomed to. The first music I really paid attention to was classic rock. This was before playing the guitar. In fact, I started out playing drums to what we now consider classic rock: Cheap Trick, Queen, The Who, the Blues Brothers, Heart, etc. Delving backwards a bit, I got heavy into the music of the '60s. As I was reaching back to the Woodstock era music, I was also gravitating toward the guitar. Once the guitar bug bit me, I was enthralled with learning Elvis tunes, Beatles, Santana, and was hugely influenced by the blues rock of Eric Clapton, Ten Years After, Jimi Hendrix, etc. I spent most of my post-elementary school years being a virtual encyclopedia of '60's rock. Needless to say, I had no interest in Jazz, Classical, Top 40, or much of anything other than blues and '60's(and '70's) rock.

Having headed up my own band throughout high school, it became apparent that music was what I was in the the most and going into anything else would be fairly futile. So, having come from the "high school guitar hero", I packed up to go to Berklee College of Music in Boston. Needless to say, I realized quickly that I had a lot of work to do just to keep up, forget about being the best. I also learned fairly quickly that there is a lot of other styles of music out there, and being into only rock was enormously limiting. Berklee forced me learn more advanced styles of music, with music theory and ear training referencing Jazz and Classical music. I picked up more on Classical music from my move over to UMass Lowell, and learned that there is much to be found in most styles of music, and that the rock music that I loved took it's influence from tons of these other styles of music. Today, I use tons of jazz concepts in my playing, and never do I hear that I sound like a jazz player trying to play blues, or that I'm overplaying a style.

That's the subject of this first post: open-mindedness in music. In lessons, I teach the blues form, as all of our rock and pop music comes from blues and jazz. As I always tell students, even though I was quite into blues when I started, I'm not on to push it onto new students. Teaching them the blues form does not mean that they have to become blues players(fedora hat, sunglasses, cigars, etc.). It's just important that they hear for themselves that their favorites, whether it's Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, John Mayer and the Jonas Brothers, or the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Killers, are all heavily influenced by the blues, many times through Clapton, Page, and Hendrix, etc.

When students have questions on chords or on scales to use on a tune, it's much more helpful to have some insight as to why as well as what to play. Even if some of it goes over one's head, better to hear it and start to understand rather than learn the tools with no idea how they work. That's where the whole jazz theory/classical theory comes into play. Not everyone who plays well is a theory head, but it certainly makes learning a lot easier. Same with reading music. Most people don't want to go there because the thought of it is daunting. It's like learning a new language. However, consider how difficult it would be to learn to speak if you hadn't been taught to read. In reality, speaking is an aural event; we hear it and we speak what we hear. We learn the most from what we hear. However, learning to read opened up a whole world of learning, in that we can write things down to remember them for later, we can discover new words on our own time using books, we understand different parts of speech, etc. Doesn't this sound like music? It is. Music is an aural art, not a written one. The written page is not the music; the interpretation of it is. However, being able to read the music is a huge part of learning.

Just as someone who never learned to read text can certainly still have a brilliant mind, someone who never learned to read music can still become a brilliant musician. That's where the standard references of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Wes Montgomery come in. Keep in mind, though, that those players had to come up with their own concepts and their own interpretations of the way music is played and organized. They're also all notorious for spending an enormous amount of hours listening and practicing. Most of us mortals have school and/or jobs to deal with, and don't have the hundreds of hours to spend weekly. You'll find that in order to be an upper level player, it will take those hundreds of hours of playing your instrument. An acquaintance through internet newsgroups that I have conversed with, Marc Sabatella, proposed his infamous Law of Sucking (suitable for framing): When learning a new skill, there is no avoiding this truth: you're going to suck at the new skill for a while, until you work on it enough to improve. You thus have two options. You can start working on the new skill now, sucking right away and getting it over with, leaving you in a position to improve sooner rather than later. Or you can continue to work within your comfort zone, doing what you already know how to do, putting off your sucking - and with it, your opportunity for improvement - until whenever you *do* decide to try the new skill. But no amount of stalling by continuing to do what you already know how to do is going to reduce how badly or how long you suck when you finally do get around to trying the new skill. Suck now or suck later - it's your choice.

This works for reading music as well as playing. It works for improvising, chords, scales, sweep picking, rhythmic training, ear training, etc. If you don't know what these are, feel free to ask. I will cover these things in later posts. The important thing, of course, is to spend as much focused time on important topics and concepts to minimizing the sucking, which is why we work with teachers.

Let's get this party started...