All posts by Robbie

The Starfish – Sidetracked with Technology

The "Starfish" is the new term for sidetracked

Musician, baker or candlestick maker, the starfish phenomenon is the big black hole at our feet, eagerly awaiting our first step in the wrong direction. It's the pitfall of getting diverted from our key goals, like staying in tune, having strong time and writing great songs. And more often than not, the culprit that pushes us into that hole is technology.

How many times have we set out with the best intentions to undertake a basic task, like recording a song to find out what works and what doesn't, only to get bogged down in software issues, gear complications and computer problems? All of which takes us farther and farther away from our original objective.

Technology is a great tool that can do so many things for us. But if we don't manage it carefully it can quickly become a huge distraction that will only lead to another version of the starfish story.

The Starfish parable is an important reminder

The starfish story will strike a common chord in all of us. It's an adventure that becomes increasingly disjointed by the seductive forces of technology, luring its subject through a maze of murky and pointless paths.

The story does have a happy ending though, and it can help your adventures have one, too. The next time you make a fresh start on a new project, think of the starfish and its many arms that reach in all directions. When you come to the first intersection, think carefully about which way to go. Make sure it takes the most direct route toward your original goal. Let the starfish remind you that one of your most valuable treasures is your time, so be sure to make the most of it.

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Slick Blues Lick

Slick blues lick for your blues in E

Here's a slick blues lick that incorporates a finger-style approach with your right hand. It's a versatile part that will work with the blues in E you may be playing and it's a nice transition from bar 2 to 3 in the progression.  And when you learn it you can experiment with it in other parts of your blues as well.

The reoccurring open E string  on the top of the phrase reinforces the root of the key and provides the resonance that we love to hear. I use it in my song, the Breakfast Blues, which draws heavily on the use of open strings throughout. In the video I present that slick blues lick in context, playing it between some tasty 13th and 9th chords that you might want to try as well.

A slick blues lick that helps make the blues your own

You might say, "Hey, that's a simple run that's been used before", but that's the beauty of the blues. It's all about when, where  and how you play some of the time-honored passages that you will come across. You can put your own feeling and expression into it and make it belong to you.

The blues are a great vehicle to improvise around, to write songs about and to project emotion with. So enjoy the phrase and the chords I present here and have fun with this slick blues lick!

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Put on your Vacation Face

Seagull Guitar
Put on your Vacation Face

Summer's here - put on your vacation face

A vacation face will be mandatory to disguise your boredom with the inevitable annual vacation that you've reluctantly embarked upon. Sure, everybody loves a holiday and going away - but what about practicing? What about working on that great groove we just came up with?

There's no doubt we love our partner, our family, our pets! But what about our true love for our music and our commitment to our instrument? Next to singing and playing at the same time, this may be the most difficult balancing act you will ever need to perform.

If you want to maintain your relationship, stay in your family and out of the doghouse, you'll need to learn how to put on a proper vacation face.  This will require that you do exactly what you do whenever you're not sure how the song goes, just fake it!  Considering that many people fake joy and even orgasms to keep their relationships afloat, it shouldn't be that hard to look like we're on top of our vacation. So just like perfecting a passage in a song, you will need to practice putting on your happy, interested and engaged vacation face.

Surviving - from afternoon picnics to family reunions

Just like an alternate tuning,  the more you work on your vacation face, the more situations you will become effective at applying it to. Whether it's showing appreciation for the boss's singing at the company picnic or hearing the in-laws schooling you on the importance of musicians having back-up careers (like mortuary management), you can become startling convincing.

Like learning an instrument, it's all in the technique

Just purse your lips like you are about to play the bugle part from the Marines  reveille, think of Angelina Jolie and spread your mouth horizontally while raising your eyebrows vertically.

With a concentrated effort, after a short period of time you will have the ability to slip on a vacation face that will radiate a smile to rival the Botox injections of Cher and Joan Rivers combined.

In the meantime you can always hope for bad weather, flight cancellations or the camp counselor severely stubbing their toe. But with vacations cropping up every year or so, your best remedy will be the ability to put on a strong, believable vacation face. So keep smiling, summer will be over soon!

(Photo by Richard foster)

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Hunchback Be Gone – Guitar Ergonomics

Guitar Hunchback

Hunchback of Notre Dame, North Carolina or North Vancouver?

Hunchback be gone! You don't want to end up as any of them. Because you are a dedicated guitar player spending long hours on your craft, you have to watch your posture. Sure, the hunchback of Notre Dame was a swinging bell player, but if he paid more attention to his body position he may not have ended up as such a gnarly guy.

Good, long term habits will pay off

Every instrument has its specific challenges and the guitar is no exception. For guitar players, good ergonomics are essential to long term health and comfort. In addition to everything you need to remember and be aware of when you are playing, it's very difficult to think about your posture, too. But the earlier you establish good posture habits while playing the guitar, the better off you will be in the long run. Just about everything you need to avoid being a hunchback can be found at this guitar ergonomics link.  The information is out there, now it's just a matter of being aware of it while you practice and perform. We all want you to be a great guitar player and get the most out of your instrument. But we also want you to be able to have a full range of motion for other important things in your life, like standing, walking and embracing your adoring fans while you are in an upright position.

The Alexander Technique

Many musicians and actors subscribe to the Alexander Technique, which focuses on awareness of posture.  Once you have an understanding of the principles of the technique, you can incorporate them into your everyday activities, including playing the guitar. I have met a number of musicians who use the technique and have achieved many benefits by practicing it.

Straighten up and fly right

So when you start to catch yourself slouching, just think of our friend in the photo, or the guy in the checkout line who walks around in an "L" shape. As soon as you imagine yourself becoming like that, I have a hunch that you will straighten up and fly right.

(Photo by Matt P.)

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Get Lucky – Bet on 13th Chords

Get lucky and win with 13th chords

When it comes to blues, jazz and sophisticated pop songs, 13 is a lucky number. Harmonically, if you count the numbers in the major scale, when you reach 13 and use it in your chord, you will get lucky. Why? Because you will get a great, classy sound when you use 13th chords.

Let's count in the key of C major:  1-C, 2-D, 3-E, 4-F, 5-G, 6-A, 7-B, 8 (octave) C, 9-D, 10-E, 11-F, 12-G and 13-A.  So when you play your typical C7 chord, usually a combination of the notes C-E-G-Bb, throw in an A and now you have a 13th chord.

Counting cards and counting notes help you get lucky

You probably noticed that when you counted the notes in the C major scale that the A is also the sixth of the chord.  Thinking about all of these numbers can be confusing, but don't let them intimidate you. You will get the hang of it once you start analyzing the structure of your chords. The way I look at it is: if I use an A in a C major chord, I think of the A as a 6th. But as soon as I have a Bb in there, that A become a 13th.

You also get lucky because In the C13 chord, that A gives you a nice funky sound because it creates dissonance when it is played against the Bb. This is know as a close interval. You can mix the notes up so the A and Bb aren't right next to each other and it will give your chord different shades.

You can't lose with 13th chords

You will get lucky with these chords because they are versatile and distinctive - and you'll sound like a genius when you play them. In the video I introduce some fingerings for 13th chords to get you started. Experiment with different voicings on your own and you will find some interesting, great sounding chords. Try playing some 13th chords and get lucky!

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Super Substitutions

Super substitutions help define your sound

Robbie's Chord House shares more super substitutions, this time the D minor 6/9.  This chord is super because it meets my requirements for a full sounding, memorable chord on a number of levels. First, it incorporates open strings which provides sustain and resonance. And secondly, it has dissonance because of its use of close intervals.

Aside from all of the technical mumbo-jumbo that goes into the structure of this chord, the bottom line is that it sounds great! It is a very distinctive chord that gives a big, defining sound.

Super substitutions broken down

At the 10th fret, we play the D in the bass (2nd finger on the E string), the muted A string,  the C (3rd finger on the D string), the F (the 4th finger on the G string) and then the open B and E strings. You can see and hear the haunting, funky sound the close intervals (B&C, E&F) create. And with this super voicing, there are two of them!

Harmonically, the chord consists of the D (root),  C natural (flat 7th), F natural (minor 3rd), B (6th) and the E (9th). Depending on where it's used in the progression it can work as a substitution for a D minor or a D minor7. But I like to use it as a substitution for a D7 and have the minor 3rd act as a sharp 9th function.

In the end it's all about how it sounds and how well it works for the situation and your ear.  I have included its theoretical justification in case a music theory purist - or piano player - challenges you on it.

 So many ways to play and say what you want

Experiment with the D minor 6/9 and see where it works for you. The lesson here is that there are many chords you can use, so the more you know, the more options you have. And as you learn how chords are structured you will get more ideas on what to play and where to play it. There are more resources for substitutions, like my 30 Chord Blues, and Robbie's Chord House is always open, so remember to drop by every now and then for a visit , you might discover some super substitutions!

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Candy From a Baby

Candy From a Baby

Candy From a Baby, a soulful example of substitutions

In Candy From a Baby, I use some interesting chord extensions to support the lyrics and harmonize with the melody. The intro, interlude and ending are based on an F pedal under an EbMaj9, an Fsus2 and then an FMaj add 9 over C.

Then in the verse at the fourth bar, you'll hear one of our 13th chords (Ab13). At bar six, I use an A minor7 with a raised 5th, a haunting chord that really supports the story. It has and A in the bass with my first finger at the 5th fret, a G natural at the 5th fret on the D string (played with my second finger), the minor 3rd (C natural) with my third finger on the G string, the F natural (the raised 5th) with my little finger one the B string and then the E open string or the 5th of the chord on the top.

The last two notes add noticeable dissonance by having the F and the E together. Alone they may sound harsh, but when mixed in with the other notes of the chord and the vocal melody note, the combination gives a very distinct sound that really supports the lyrics and the story of the song,

Candy From a Baby, sweet and sour at the same time

In bars seven and eight of the verse - harmonically my favorite part of the song - there are some dense chords that subtly enhance the transition into the pre-chorus. Here I play Cminor11 over F, B7#9#5, Ebsus9 over Gb and then a garden variety C9.

Candy From a Baby Chords

Don't be intimidated, it's an example to generate curiosity

Some of these chords are tricky to finger and I include them more as a goal to work toward than something you might just sight-read. It took me a long time to master chords like this and some of them were shown to me by Joe Pass, one of the greatest guitarists that ever played the instrument.

The purpose of the exercise is to provide a reference so you can hear and see  the value of learning the structure and applications of different chord voicings and substitutions. They can open up your sound to many new directions in playing and songwriting. So don't be intimidated, there are many steps in your journey to become a better player. Keep checking back for new ideas about chords, voicings and substitutions, and practice, practice, practice!

(Flying Heart Candy by James Lee)

A Meaty Chord That Even Vegans Savor

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Put meat on your progression’s bones

A meaty chord like this will add a distinct flavor to your song, have your audience clapping for minutes and coming back for seconds. You’ll have them eating out of your hand and wanting a steady diet of your playing once you start serving up this voicing. If you have a progression that uses a basic G7 chord, try substituting this G13b9 right before you resolve to your CMaj chord. It’s the perfect chord for that special occasion and when you find it, it will sound great and make you stand out among guitar players.

A meaty chord that tenderizes

This G13b9 substitution is a full bodied chord that begs for resolution. When you follow it up with a solid C Maj, it gives a memorable sound that will add power to the transition in your chord progression. And it’s versatile as well. You can use the lite version of it when you play with a bass player (F-B-E-Ab) or if you play solo you can put in a fancy cross-over and put the G in the bass with your right hand.

An ending that’s not pretending

If you’re not sure where to apply this nice, meaty chord, try it at the very end of your song just before you play your last CMaj chord. Its strong harmonic structure will create more than just ear candy, it will provide real substance. You’ll have a memorable finale that will fill the appetites of listeners who are hungry for sweet sounds and fulfilling music.

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Robbie’s Chord House

Robbie's Chord House

 Robbie's Chord House builds it out for you

Robbie's Chord House is a great way to lean new chords. I've put together a bunch of chords that can open up your sound and introduce some new musical directions for you as well. Robbie's Chord House will keep growing with new voicings and fingerings for many types of chords that will have many different applications.

Here's a meaty, tough sounding G7#9 chord:

Robbie's Chord House shares a truly funky chord

In addition to some sweet sounding chords, we'll be discussing the theory behind them and their different uses. The G7#9 chord presented here is heavier in the bass notes, giving a nice bottom end to your sound. It's a nice contrast to hearing the more commonly played voicings that use higher strings.

Robbie's Chord House applications

This G7#9 is a good groove chord with an undeniably funky feel to it. The use of the lower end notes works well if you're playing solo and covering for a bass part. If you're working with a bass player and you want to bring out the bottom end, you can effectively double up with the bass part using a chord like this.

Let us know if there are any chord types you want to hear more about and remember to keep checking in for tasty chords that will make your playing stand out. Robbie's Chord House, where I build them for you, one note at a time!

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Day job Dreaming

Day Job Blues

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 A day job and playing guitar are often synonymous

A day job is a reality for most guitar players, musicians and creative artists in general. It might not make your day job any easier but you may find comfort in knowing that one of the greatest innovators of the instrument, Wes Montgomery, was no exception. Wes burnt the candle at both ends. Smokin’ on the guitar at night, Wes worked a day job as a welder to support his large family while he honed his craft, sometimes playing 2 gigs into the early morning hours.

So don’t feel bad if you are slogging it out in a less than perfect employment scenario. There is a long list of hyper-talented people who had to pay dues for large parts of their lives before they were able to have more control over their time. You may be chained to your day job physically but you can still be thinking about those fingerings, chord extensions and lyrical treatments. Just be careful not to hurt your hands – you’re going to need them.

Try to get the most out of your day job

A day job may be harsh, but it doesn’t have to be the end of the world. Aside from the old adage, “Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”, a day job can offer many positive learning experiences and opportunities to develop important relationships. There are plenty of other great people out there working on their dreams who you might meet at your day job. So for now, let’s grin and bear it and not allow it to tarnish our dream.

The eccentric but successful comedian, Andy Kaufman, worked as a bus boy  while he was starring on a hit TV series, presumably to get material and stay in touch with “regular” life. And don’t forget Rodriguez  who had a day job in construction and toiled away in obscurity and was even thought to be dead although he was a star to a huge fan base – all unknown to him.

So keep working and keep playing your guitar, good things may be right around the corner. And remember, a dream is bigger than a dollar!

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