Tag Archives: acoustic

Ukulele playing: pick or fingers?

One question I was asked fairly regularly by ukulele students in the past was:

Which is better for playing ukulele – fingers or pick*?

This blog post will hopefully go some way to explain why both are equally viable options. There – if you came to this article solely for reassurance on your preferred method of playing, I’ve saved you the hassle of reading any further!

[*NB – when I say ‘pick’, I of course mean a plectrum, like those used for guitar playing. If you’re here to learn about the kind if pick you dig holes with, you’re very much in the wrong place!]

If you’re looking for more information on picks, this rather informative article here from liveukulele.com may prove to be of use. But for now, let’s dive into our two options…

Pick (plectrum)

A pick is an easy option to start with, as even the nylon strings if a ukulele (as opposed to the steel strings used on a typical acoustic guitar) can have an effect on your fingers; this is particularly true of your nails and cuticles (the skin directly under your finger nails). You also get a louder, more direct sound when using a regular guitar plectrum, which are generally made of plastic or synthetic materials such as nylon & tortex (fake tortoise shell).

If you’re used to picking & strumming a guitar, you don’t have to make any changes to your right hand style at all. Although the same could be said if you’re primarily a fingerstyle player…

Fingerpicking

If you’re adept at fingerpicking guitar, you’ll be completely at home on the ukulele. In fact, it has two strings less, which should make it easier! I often find myself using my thumb for the G & C strings (the two closest to your face) and only making use of my index and middle finger for the E & A strings respectively.

I’ve also noticed that I perform finger rakes with any finger, and use my thumb in a greater variety of ways. Also, any guitar picking technique, from muting to string slapping & body tapping, all work equally well on a uke. If anything, my ukulele picking technique is more akin to how I play flamenco guitar!

Finally, you may notice that the tone of a fingerpicked uke is less harsh than when plucked with a pick. It’s certainly possible to obtain a greater range of sounds by adjusting which part of your fingers and nails pluck or strike the strings than could be managed with a plectrum.

Is there a middle way?

Well, yes. There are a few alternatives. Firstly, there’s felt plectrums. These are fairly common in ukulele playing and provide three ease of using a pick without the harsher tone. However, they’re less useful for more intricate playing, such as plucking individual strings.

There’s also a type of pick which sits on your fingers, popular in bluegrass styles.

Thumb & finger picks, popular in bluegrass banjo & guitar playing

These thumb & finger picks originated banjo playing, and offer the attack of a plectrum while still using fingerstyle hand & finger movement. Having said that, they do take a bit of getting used to! Many players use only the thumb pick in combination with their fingers. I’d recommend experimenting to see what works best for you.

But which is better?

As always in articles of this nature, I can’t give you a definitive answer, other than telling you my personal preference. For me, I don’t use picks at all in ukulele playing. I prefer the tone & versatility of using my fingers. But that’s just me – I encourage you to try both and see which one feels right for you.

Finally, don’t worry about sounding amazing if you’re new to trying a new playing style. Consider what feels most comfortable, and what has the best potential for you to continue improving in your playing. Let me know how you get on!

R.I.P. Chris Cornell (1964-2017)

The music world faced another sad loss with today’s news. Chris Cornell, lead singer and songwriter with three great rock bands, namely Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog & Audioslave, passed away on Wednesday.

In all of these groups his voice rings out & grabs your attention. The video in this post is one of Audioslave’s best songs, performed live.

Back in 2005, Audioslave were playing in Stockholm while I was visiting a friend there, and by chance I ended up catching their show. Cornell played Soundgarden’s ‘Black Hole Sun’ as a solo acoustic number, then followed on with ‘I Am The Highway’ in the same style as this video. It was a brilliant performance which I don’t expect to forget anytime soon.
Rest in peace, Chris Cornell (1964-2017).

New Year’s resolutions for guitar players

As a general rule, I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. My philosophy is that changes can be made at any time, so why wait until January?

However, there is something about the end of a year which causes us all to reflect on the previous twelve months and start focusing on our plans for the next twelve. For us working musicians, many of us have recently reached the end of one of our peak times, the ‘Christmas Party Season’.

Like many bands who find most of their work comes from weddings & function work, 2016 ended for me with a NYE gig. In January, things start to feel a little quieter by comparison, which gives us time to ponder on the gigs we’ve enjoyed, what we didn’t enjoy, and what we hope to change for the new year.

So, with that in mind, here are a few of my suggestions for guitar-related resolutions for musicians looking to grow as better musicians in 2017:

  • Learn a new style.

Always wanted to start learning those jazz chord voicings? Perhaps you keep meaning to work on your reggae & ska rhythm playing? Or your country picking? Blues slide? The list goes on…

Take the time to work on these new genres & styles of playing. We are very fortunate to live in a time where we can access a world of free tutorials on the Internet, or videos in YouTube. However, don’t rule out the possibility of taking lessons to focus on specific areas – working one to one with an experienced guitar tutor does wonders for improving your playing! 

  • Mix things up.

Learning a style doesn’t mean you have to abandon all you know & travel the world playing strictly Django/gypsy jazz for the rest of your life (though I imagine there are plenty of worse ways to live)!

Have you found that the majority if your playing has been on acoustic guitar? Trying swapping to electric more often (or vice versa). Do you always practise at the same time of day? If possible, can you change to a different time? Your brain operates differently throughout the day – you may well find yourself going down very different musical avenues simply by switching from a morning to an afternoon practice session.

Sometimes learning to play a song you are very familiar with in a new style works brilliantly in helping your playing. Not only do you freshen up material which might be getting a bit stale, but you’ll have a safer means of exploring new options in your guitar playing.

One area of guitar playing I can’t recommend highly enough is solo performance. By this, I don’t mean the lead guitar solo in a song, but playing the melody, harmony, rhythms, etc on one unaccompanied guitar. It’s something a piano player wouldn’t think twice about, but I’m frequently amazed at how many guitarists simply haven’t tried it properly! If you’re unsure about how to start doing this, there are several books, online tutorials (like this blog!), and of course YouTube videos to help inspire you. Which brings us nicely in to…

  • Widen your horizons.

Music is a language. Even when playing on your own, you are creating sounds for yourself to hear, effectively taking to yourself. But there’s only so long you can do that before you end up going round in circles, or going crazy!

Set yourself the following challenge for the year: discover a new artist each month of 2017. Learn from what you hear. Take examples of their playing & try to incorporate it into your own. It can only make you a better guitarist! The beauty of this is that you don’t have to focus on other guitar players. In fact, it might be better not to! Many of the jazz & Blues guitarists I admire take inspiration for their improvisational playing from horn players, translating their melodies & ideas into their own instrument. Try it!

It also helps to get out amongst other musicians, jam, join or start a new band, particularly in a new style. It also goes further than this – always wanted to sing while playing? Start! Learning a new instrument? Do it! The best way out of a rut is to climb upwards!

  • Get your music ‘out there’.

…And if you’re meeting new musicians & launching new projects, you’re already doing this. Go to more live gigs, gig more yourself, especially new and original music. I know all too well how easy it is to get stuck in one ‘world’ (in my case playing in a covers band), and finding it hard to do other things, but I promise it’s worth the effort.

Remember to have fun while you’re out there expanding your guitar playing horizons!

Best of luck and wishing you all a very happy new year! Let’s make 2017 – like every year – a great year for music, for the guitar, and for you!

Tim xx

Please do get in touch to tell me what your own guitar/music new year resolutions are, and stay in touch to let me know how you’re getting on with them! Don’t forget I’m here to help if you need it! xx

New video: ‘Waters of Tyne’ (demo)

I haven’t posted a video in a while, so I thought I’d share a quick demo video to show you one if the projects I’m currently working on. 

Having been booked to play an entire set of purely Northumbrian folk music, I have been digging out some if the region’s great melodies & adapting them for solo guitar. I’ve had so much fun doing so that I hope to record some if my favourites later on this year.

For now, here’s a rough demo of one tune I particularly enjoy. Please excuse a) the less-than-perfect quality of sound & b) my guitar-playing facial expressions!

Watch the video here

This piece in this video is a solo acoustic guitar arrangement of the traditional Northumbrian tune ‘Waters of Tyne’. There are already a couple of great arrangements out there, and my version is a mix of some of the better examples available. Like many of those I found, this arrangement uses DADGAD tuning. 

The guitar is my Taylor 314CE (recently cleaned up, re-strung & set up to be my permanent DADGAD guitar). The video was shot & edited using the iMovieMaker app on my iPhone 5s, so apologies for the rather thin sound – a recording on a mobile phone simply doesn’t do full justice to the sound of this wonderful instrument. 

I hope you enjoy this demo. Comments & messages are always welcome. I hope to be sharing more very soon! 

Tim x

Pitching the argument: The reality of 432 Hz vs. 440 Hz tuning

I recently noticed a post on my Facebook page arguing in favour of what is called Scientific Tuning. This is where A4 (just below ‘middle C’) =432 Hz. as opposed to 440 Hz, the modern standard to which all tuners automatically calibrate, and most of the music you hear is tuned to.

The post itself was of a kind I had seen before, and it featured the popular tuning of the universe argument. The idea that as our brains vibrate at 8 Hz, and the solar system vibrates at a perfect multiple of this, music pitch based around a=432 Hz has ‘greater resonance’ with the spheres and our own physiology. Some even use ‘representations’ of how water molecules and snowflakes look based on varying frequencies. What is especially interesting about some of these sites, other than some highly dubious arguments which often have little scientific backup, is their connection to a product – the invariably wish for you to ‘see the light’ about the ‘truth’ of 432 pitch, then buy their music recorded at this frequency! (Quick – it’s for the good of your wellbeing!)

I agree that we are tuned into the universe’s vibrations. As creatures which have evolved on this planet, based on matter being constantly recycled for thousands of millennia before humans appeared, it could only ever be so. But our ears are incredibly complex and amazing instruments, capable of discerning minute pitch differences. We also have an in-built system for relative pitch (the sequencing of one sound connected to the preceding and following sound).

This is not only how we appreciate and enjoy music, but how we developed speech patterns as a species across the globe. It stands to reason, therefore, that the pitching of music is entirely relative. An out-of-tune guitar (with itself as opposed to any other sounds) would sound unpleasant. This is because while one note in isolation is always on set pitch, a chord will include several pitches which are not quite correctly aligned, and therefore out-of-tune. The overall tuning of the instrument only matters when performing with another, and even then they only have to be in tune with each other to produce pleasing-sounding harmonies.

Another classic argument propagated by those opposed to the A=440 Hz tuning is that is was first proposed by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda chief. It is true that Goebbels commented on the effects of 440 tuning, but many had done so before. Several orchestras were already tuning closer to 440 than 432. The general tuning of ‘middle C’ seems to have risen slowly since the 18th century, highlighting the benefits of standardisation in pitch across the globe. This had already begun to happen before WWII, and was only officially standardised in the 1950’s, after the war had ended (and Goebbels’ suicide). It was also increasingly commonplace for instrument manufacturers to use 440 tuning by the 1920’s as this blog states.

In terms of inducing ‘mass hysteria’, or even attempting to illicit a greater emotional response from a populace through music, 440 tuning would only work at large-scale events, with hundreds of people present, if not more. It could then be argued that the hysteria comes from the crowd (consider the almost war-like ‘crowd mentality’ witnessed and experienced at sporting events) rather than the music’s pitch itself. As social animals, we are designed to be ‘swept along’ by crowds and emotions. It is how we connect. Once again, everything is relative, and I can’t see any proof that the tuning of the music to a specific pitch is the cause of social control, unrest of poor human wellbeing.

Finally, there comes the acid test: Use a controlled experiment, playing listeners the same clip of music but tuned to different pitches. Professor in sound and acoustic research Terry Cox did this very experiment. His results found no preference whatsoever in listeners hearing music played at 432 Hz, compared to 440 Hz. You can hear the clips he used and read his full explanation and results here.

In conclusion, I agree there are good physic-based reasons that music pitched at A=432 Hz. should sound better. However, I strongly encourage you to worry about the bigger problems in life and enjoy music for what it is: the organisation of pitch and rhythm. These pitches, like physics, and indeed like the human condition, are all relative: They are not only what you make them, but what you interpret them to be.

“Seeing Without Knowing” (1)

There are many downsides to being unwell, as well as all the usual symptoms – missing uni, calling in sick for work, snot getting out on my first Friday night not gigging in ages (grr) – but there is the upside that you get more time in the house. This means all of those small, niggling tasks I’ve been putting off since moving house a few months ago are now sorted. I’m also more or less up to date with uni assignments but best of all, I’ve had time to devote to research and groundwork for my new sonic project, provisionally titled “Seeing Without Knowing”.

The premise behind the idea is simple enough: The accessibility of art to everyone

How many times have you heard people discuss ‘high art’ without any practical experience of it themselves?
In other words, think of a famous poet/playwright/composer/painter, etc – how well do you know their work? You know you SHOULD (and many cultural snobs will tell you, with great enthusiasm, what to like) but when was the last time you read poetry? Or went to an art gallery? Which brings me to my next point…

Apart from a small handful of amazing venues (The Sage Gateshead, The Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Newcastle’s Lit. & Phil. Society Library and The Hatton Gallery amongst them) there are few opportunities to experience famous Art exhibits in the North East of England. Is this because the powers that be in at the Arts Council/Lottery Fund, etc agree with the notorious critic Brian Sewell when he said art and culture would be ‘wasted on northern monkeys)? Even the Lindisfarne Gospels were only loaned to the City of Durham before being returned to the British Museum, despite winning ‘attraction of the year’ at the North East England Tourism Awards, 2013 – perhaps it’s time to highlight this perception, in order to change it.

Similarly, what makes some forms of art ‘high art’? There are people who switch off at the thought of certain genres because of their preconception of those as ‘stuffy’ just as there are those who can critique Pop music with very little listening experience to go off. These preconceptions are echoes of cultural use and prior opinion, which got me thinking – Why not use the echoes of an event as the source of a musical work, with the original performance removed?

I’ve recently appealed via my Twitter account (@tim_guitarist) for suggestions of large, cavernous spaces in which I can record myself playing solo classical guitar. The main criteria I am interested in is a) somewhere with large amounts of natural reverb (as I intend to record the reverb separately to the guitar itself) and b) somewhere away from external noises (so underneath rail bridges or near busy roads are a no-go for sound pollution reasons). I’ve had some interesting suggestions so far, but still looking for additional inspiration – if you have any suggestions, please drop me a line.

All will be made clear, but one stage of the process I have in mind will involve free public performances, so stay tuned for updates regarding dates and locations, etc. I am also interested in particular to hear from any visual artists who may want to add an accompanying visual element to the sonic piece I aim to create. Any who read this (professional or students) who may be interested in a collaboration please drop me a line so I can outline a few more details of my plan to you.

More details to follow, but until next time…

Warm up & practice recommendations

This week, I’ve had the rare luxury of free time. Free time to pick up my guitar whenever I like and play. Not specifially for any particular goal, just to PLAY for the love of playing.

In doing this, it has occured to me just how little I get to do this. Usually I pick the axe up to practice or prepare for an upcoming show or to learn new material. The rest of the time I’m actually at a gig playing.

Using it as a great opportunity to go over my classical repertiore, I found it almost scary how much my disclipline had slipped. Don’t get me wrong, I still play well and in a musically pleasing manner (in my opinion, anyway!) but there are ways of performing on gutar (with classical peices in particular) which enhances the music and makes playing easier (not to mention lessening any strain and preventing injuries long term).

So this week, I have been delving into my old practice and warm up notes and dug out my old favourite, Pumping Nylon by Scott Tennant. For the classical guitarists out there who do not have this book, I strongly recommend you purchase it as soon as possible.

Image

This book focuses solely on technique improvement for both hands (including thumb for the right hand). After the initial basics and starters, it progresses into joint techniques (working exercises for both hands together) and demonstrates a closer look into flamenco techniques. These not only go to strengthen your right hand, but to widen your overall playing ability. It also includes specially written study peices to incorporate all the techniques it has taught.

About eight years ago, I suffered a broken ring finger on my right hand. This has never fully regained it’s original strength (and as a result my regular concert days are mostly behind me). The exercises in this book went a long way in helping my rebuild the muscle and bring my ability back, something I feared would necver happen. Because of this, the right hand techniques and exercises int his book are of particular importance to me.

That’s the basic warm ups covered, but what about actually rehearsal starters? For me, as with many classical guitar players, the studies (or ‘Etudes’) of Francisco Tarrega and Fernando Sor provide plenty of examples for rehearsal focus, especially with right hand technique. It’s absolutely amazing the depth of ground these two player/teacher/composers covered in advancing the technical study of the guitar and I cannot recommend them highly enough.

Alongside these, there are also the studies of Mauro Giuliani. Although his concert and recital peices are widely known (in fact the staple of most player’s repertiore), his studies are often neglected. However, I would definitely suggest investing in a transcription of his complete studies. While not as technique-practice heavy as Sor (who, in contrast, is remembered historically more for his studies than his concert peices), they present a more musically varying set and some new colour into your practice routine.

My standard practise routine (looking at my old notes from my true classical playing days) went roughly as follows:

  • 5-10 mins warm ups (both hands, featuring exercises from Pumping Nylon and scale practice
  • Selected studies from Sor, Tarrega and Giuliani (2 or 3 from each, focusing on specific improvement areas)
  • Looking at any new peices to learn; slow play-through; focus on tricky areas; attempt to play through without stopping (I would try not to spend more than 20-25 minutes on this to prevent fatigue or frustration – the peice can be returned to on the next day)
  • A better known peice which also requires mastering. Ideally play-through should be reached far more quickly
  • Another peice (already known) to ‘refresh’ the fingers (ideally this will also be an upcoming concert peice)
  • ‘Free playing’ – At this point, I could have been rehearsing for up to an hour and a half, so this should be an old favourite or two which you know well, to act as a ‘cool down’. Be careful, though, to remain watchful on technique and accuracy, as this is more likely to slip on peices you are over familiar with.

These, of course, are my tips only. I would however be deleighted to hear from other guitarists and their tips/routines for warm-ups and rehearsals. You can contact me via this blog or via my Twiiter handle: @tim_guitarist

Good luck and happy practising!