Getting Started II

Classical Guitar, front and side view. This im...

[continued from an earlier post]

Besides playing some instrument (any instrument), composing needs two things to happen: the itch to write something and something that needs something written for it (ok, I’ve used up a month’s supply of ‘somethings’).

When I was in army bands and grad school I was simply too busy practicing to compose anything, although I did do some transcriptions.

When I got my full-time orchestra job, I suddenly had every afternoon free. What a concept. The first thing I did was read. Books books books. I hadn’t read anything that wasn’t assigned in years, and I attacked this deficit like a ravenous wolf (assuming hungry wolves like to read), up to four books a week. The other thing I did was go back to guitar. I had played a great amount of guitar in high school and college, but not at all in the army or grad school. So I got a classical guitar and started working on classical again. I even taught classical guitar to kids (classes of 4 – the school’s choice, not mine) for a couple years on the side, which turned out to be tougher and less fun that I thought it would (lessons were 40 minutes, and it took about 20 of those to get the guitars tuned).

I moved to steel string guitar and bluegrass. I discovered a young American guitarist in town (living with his Swiss girlfriend) and we started playing together. We formed a folk/swing picking/singing duo that even had a couple of minor gigs here and there. I think we were together a year or two; not long, but it was an important transitional time: I started composing. I wrote pieces for guitar and mandolin (which I started playing on the side). I wrote a song with lyrics for us to sing (“Sooner the Better”). We usually had picking solos in the middle of our pieces, so I started writing out solos that sounded improvised (since I did not yet improvise). It was time to learn to improvise. I had contracted the itch to improvise. So I got an electric guitar (Gibson ES347), a sexy semi-hollow body and started taking lessons with a couple of jazz guitarists in the area (funny: I learned my classical in the states and my jazz in Europe).

And then, mirabile dictu, came Max.

I can’t remember how I first connected with Max. Must have been a friend of a friend. Max Makin was/is English, living with his Swiss girlfriend at the time.  Max was a passionate devotee of jazz guitar. He practiced all the time and he was really good. We got together and started jamming. It was fantastic for me, soaking up the terrific jazz that Max created. It saved me years of time practicing and was great fun besides. After some time, we started a jazz guitar duo. By now we were both playing electro-acoustics – amplified acoustic guitars – Max on classical, me on steel string. All original material. Which was good – it got me composing – but also not good because I never really learned the jazz standards the way I should have, going to original stuff too soon in a way.

We got some gigs and made a demo tape. I wish I still had a copy! That was back when I was a pretty  good guitarist; I was practicing two to four hours a day, and you can get pretty good at most anything if you put in that kind of time.

Max and I were together for maybe three years, then drifted apart on to our own projects. I owe him a terrific musical debt for the time we had together.

What I got from guitar was a good ear: I could hear chords. I could spell chords of all types. I also learned how to make up music. Guitar is a little different from some other instruments in this respect: you often play what’s easy, what lies under the fingers. You play “shapes” – where the fingers hit the fretboard. But with jazz you also have to know what the scale degrees are of what you’re playing. All this really helped as a background for composition. But my composition was mostly confined to guitar. It needed something else to break that boundary.

What did it was rhythm. Percussion. I happened to take a 3-day course in Latin percussion (Cuban and Brazilian) in a hotel in the mountains of Switzerland. That was a life-changer, a DNA-bender. Classical music is very short on anything interesting rhythmically; jazz guitar was much more so. But playing only percussion round the clock for those days gave me a whole new perspective on what was possible.

And that’s when everything started.

Stay tuned for Getting Started III and the rest of the story.

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