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...

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