Thursday, May 30, 2013

Stevie Ray Vaughan: One of the All-Time Great Guitarists (Video)

Stevie Ray Vaughan was a self-taught guitarist from Texas who rose to fame and acclaim in the 1980's due to his innovative and energetic guitar solos.  He mainly played on a Fender Stratocaster, fitted out with the heaviest gauge strings available.  The strings were so heavy that he regularly tuned his guitar down a half step, to Eb.  His bass players did the same.

Vaughan was a good-looking guy who always wore cowboy hats, decorated with shiny bling or rhinestones or fancy bands.  In many ways his garb reminded me of Hank Williams (Sr).  Even his guitar strap was decorated with large musical notes, like those Hank Williams often wore.  During the evening of August 27, 1990, SRV had just performed at the Alpine Valley Resort in East Troy, Wisconsin and was ready to board a helicopter for a ride back to Chicago.  Four helicopters departed in a thick fog, one every two minutes; Vaughan got the last seat available in one helicopter, asking his wife and brother to take the next one as he was anxious to get back to Chicago.  Vaughan's copter never made it, as it flew into the side of a mountain shortly after taking off, killing everyone on board.  Stevie Ray Vaughan is buried in Dallas. (Read more about it here.)

It seems that if you desire a quick death, become a famous musical performer and take a ride in light aircraft.   Stevie joined many others who went that way before him, Patsy Cline, Otis Redding, Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, Jim Reeves, Ricky Nelson and others.

In any case, here's a video of Stevie Ray Vaughan, made in 1984.  It's a comical piece featuring his hit song "Cold Shot."

Serious Jamming Ahead! Off to Nevada to See Bro!

Tomorrow I am driving to a town near Reno, Nevada to see my older brother, "Bro."  It will be a welcome interruption to my daily rut.  Bro is an accomplished musician and plays lead guitar, steel guitar and keys.  He teaches guitar and gigs around the locale where he lives.  We will do some serious jamming, and yes, I am bringing my new bass guitar.

Right now I am sitting in my lovely backyard gazebo, enjoying the very mild California weather, and listening to a CD of Anat Cohen (jazz clarinet) that my friend Rick Darby (of Reflecting Light) sent me.   (Thanks Rick!)

The problem with reaching retirement age is that every significant goal in life has been achieved:  you completed your education, got your degree, started a career, found a mate, had children and grandchildren and finally retired.  Now you get to do nothing all day!  Just hang around and wait for the grim reaper.

Doing nothing is absolutely boring.  Without a major purpose in life, one can lose his zest for life, even his will to live.  So to increase my sense of purpose, I have turned to my long-deferred goal of becoming an excellent bass player.

For the past three weeks I have been studying music and practicing bass for anywhere from 3 to 5 hours a day.  I am not just practicing what I already know, but pushing myself to gain new skills, to break through to the next level.  My practice involves practicing jazz chord progressions to backing tracks, watching how-to videos (Scott Devine's are best), practicing speed and accuracy drills, playing to music and recording it for analysis, among other things.  Because so many riffs and bass lines are presented as written music (with notes and time and key signatures), I can see that I will have to renew my study of reading music, too.   And that's fine!  I want to be a real musician, one who is literate and can sight read.

From time to time I will post recordings of my progress.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Chords in the Major Scales

Yesterday I purchased the five study packages from Scott's Bass Lessons and learned some new things.  One of the most important is that the chords in each major key always follow the same pattern.  Knowing this, you can figure out the chords in any major key you play.  You take the seven notes of the major scale and play a major chord for the 1st, a minor chord for the 2nd and 3rd, a major chord for both the 4th and the fifth, a minor chord for the sixth, and a diminished chord for the 7th.  

See the chart below.  The major scale for the Key of C is C, D, E, F, G, A, B.  SO, the chords for the key of C are C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am and B diminished.  The chart shows all chords in each major key.  The chart can be a useful reference when playing jazz or blues chord progressions.  For example, if someone tells you that the progression is a ii-V-I progression in Bb, you would know the chords referred to are Cm, F and Bb.

To better understand how chords relate to scales, see this discussion at

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Playing My New Fender Jazz Bass to "Cold Shot" With My Band

My New Fender Jazz Bass
Here's me playing my new Jazz Bass with the band. Unless you have quality computer speakers or headphones, you won't be able to hear the bass!


Monday, May 20, 2013

The New Fender Jazz Bass - Made in China. I Want One!

My first bass was a brand new, 1960 Fender Jazz Bass.  My father bought it for me when I was 15 years old.  Since I was too lazy to learn guitar, he figured (mistakenly) that bass would be easier to play.  So, thanks to my father, I, the family musical slacker, was assigned the role of bass player.

My Jazz Bass came with a nickel chrome tail piece with a big "F" on it, and also a chrome cover for the forward pickup.  These accouterments were supposed to improve the looks of the bass, but for modern bass players, they are more of a deterrence than anything else.  So Fender did away with them, and I agree with the decision.

During the late 1960s, British rock was all the rage, and groups did not use Fenders as much -- so I sold mine (big mistake).  In 2005 I bought a Fender Mustang bass, thinking the shorter neck would be good for my small hands.  That was also an illusion.  Even small hands can be trained to successfully navigate a standard bass guitar neck, and I have no problem with the full-sized neck on my Rickenbacker 4003.

With my growing interest in becoming a professional bass player, I have developed a desire to have another Fender Jazz Bass.  For sentimental reasons, I want one that is three-color Sunburst and has a tortoise shell pick guard -- like the one my father bought for me in the long-ago summer of 1960.  With the advent of the Chinese made version of the bass, the price for a Jazz Bass has become very affordable.  The Chinese version above costs $499, compared to $1,350 for the American-made version on the right.

Yesterday I went to Guitar Center in Gilroy and played a Chinese Jazz Bass.  The finish on it was gorgeous, and the neck and action sublime.  It sounded great as well, even with the cheap Chinese strings that come with it (I will upgrade to better strings if I buy one).  The pick guard is black, but I can buy a tortoise shell pick guard from Sweetwater for less than $30.  I can also order a beige, tweed hard shell case (like the one that came with my 1960 bass) for about $130.  The Chinese bass only comes with a gig bag.

Other differences are (1) the wood -- the Chinese bass is made from alder whereas the American version is made from ash.  (2) The Chinese version has noise-canceling humbucking pickups, compared to the traditional single-coil pickups on the American bass.  Fender describes the new bass this way:
The Modern Player Jazz Bass® is a volcanic new take on the time-honored Jazz Bass thanks to its dual Modern Player humbucking Jazz Bass pickups. Other features include an alder body, C-shaped maple neck, rosewood fretboard with 9.5" radius and 20 jumbo frets, three-ply pickguard, vintage-style four-saddle bridge with brass saddles, open-gear tuners and nickel/chrome hardware. Available in Three-color Sunburst, Olympic White and Black Transparent.
Reviews of the new bass on YouTube and on bass forums are very positive.  This appears to be a great bass at a great price.  I'm going to get one -- hopefully, sooner rather than later.

UPDATE 5/22/2013 -- The bass is mine!  I bought it today and I love it!!

Monday, May 13, 2013

"That Thing You Do" -- a Movie About a Fictional Rock Band in 1964

Danelectro Bass Guitar
Yesterday I watched the Tom Hanks film "That Thing You Do," about a fictional rock band in Pittsburgh in 1964.  This band calls themselves the "Oneders" (pronounced "wonders") but everyone thinks the name is pronounced "the Oh-Needers."  Cute.

The drummer, Guy Patterson, is the chief protagonist.  He is asked to sit in for the Oh-Needers regular drummer (who has broken an arm) at a talent competition.  The band plays their own composition, "That Thing You Do."  It's supposed to be a ballad but drummer Guy speeds up the beat considerably, making it an up-tempo tune, over the objections of the band leader Jimmy.  The song is an instant hit and the band wins the talent contest.

After playing in a local pizza parlor and making an amateurish record of "That Thing You Do," the band is discovered by a talent scout and are on their way to fame and glory.  They trade in their cheap Silvertone guitars and Danelectro bass guitar for better instruments.  I liked the portrayal of the instruments, and found them to be historically accurate for the time period.  Lead guitar player Lenny upgrades to a Fender Jazzmaster guitar, and the bass player trades his Danelectro for a Fender Jazz Bass, which was identical to my first bass, a 1960 Fender Jazz Bass in three color sunburst, complete with chrome tailpiece and string cover.

The only sour note in this accurate depiction was Jimmy's 12-string, '63 Rickenbacker guitar, identical to that played by George Harrison of the Beatles.  There is no 12 string sound in any of the songs, and the instrument seems out of place in what is essentially a bubblegum band -- toothless music targeted for pubescent schoolgirls.  (When I think of Rickenbacker, I think of the earthy blues of Creedence Clearwater or the British Rock of the Beatles, or the psychedelic rock of the Jefferson Airplane.)

Other things about the movie bugged me.
Fender Jazz Bass, 1960
Young people are shown with small portable radios with white earphones, similar to those used today for iPhones.  Portable radios and even earphones were in use back then, but were rarely (if ever) seen on the street.  No one in the band has long hair, though by 1964 every male teenager in the country was busily growing it out to emulate the Beatles.

Jimmy, the guitar player, comes closest to an authentic 60's hairstyle.  He resembles Dave Clark of the Dave Clark Five, also popular around that time period.  Indeed, in one shot of the band, they are wearing white turtlenecks under black suits, making them look very much like the Dave Clark Five.

Blacks depicted in the film were politically correct to an absurd level, portraying them as beings of light rather than real human beings with faults and frailties.  They include Lamarr, the head bellhop of the Los Angeles hotel where the band stays.  Lamarr is Mr. Effervescence, nicer than pie, positive-thinking-on-steroids, and matchmaker to Guy and Faye (the band's only groupie).  He is too nice to be real.

Likewise for Del Paxton, the piano player of a jazz band and musical hero to Guy, who finally meets his hero in an L.A. club called "the Blue Spot."  Del is also super positive, upbeat and offers sagacious advice to Guy, some of which is memorable, like never depending on a band, because "bands come and go," and you have to keep playing with whomever you can.  I like the Del character, but again, he is almost too nice to be real.  Now if he smoked cigars, had a few tattoos, maybe an earring, knocked back a few more whiskeys and swore a little, I could believe he's real.  The characterization was too saccharine for me.

Other blacks included a female singing group reminiscent of the Supremes, highly coiffed, dressed in pastel colors and looking pretty, but singing tunes even too cheesy for the early 1960's.  In one scene they are singing "When you're holding my hand, you're holding my heart," followed by hand claps.  I had a brief mental image of a doctor holding a beating heart during surgery as I suppressed a brief wave of nausea.  C'mon!  The Sixties were never that corny.

In the end, of course, the band is dissolved by the same forces that destroy many popular bands:  egos, the desire to play some other genre of music other than the one that made them famous, differing goals and visions, personal jealousies and annoyances.

Del Paxton had that right:  you can't depend on a band, so play when you can, with whom you can.  If you're good enough, you'll always have opportunities to play and perform.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Useful Chart for Major Scales (aka the Ionian Mode) and Key Signatures

Here's a chart I made in Excel of all the major scales (which are also called "the Ionian Mode"). You may find the chart helpful in learning your major scales and notes therein.  When you play each scale, say the note you are playing and it will help you learn notes in the major keys.

Another use for the chart should be to recognize your key signatures that are found on sheet music.  Up near the clef (be it treble clef or bass clef) in the uppler left hand corner of the music staff, you will generally see a number of flat symbols (b) or sharp symbols (#).  These signify the key in which the music is played.  No sharps or flats means Key of C; 1 flat is Key of F, 2 flats, Key of Bb, and so on.

For example, if there are two sharps indicated in the Key Signature, what key are we in?  Consult the column on the far right of the graphic.  Yep, we are in the Key of D.  In the rightmost column we see that the two sharps in the Key of D are F# and C#.

You can see in the chart which notes are sharp or flat for any of the twelve keys.

Here's another graphic on Key Signatures. I found this on the web at this location.  This graphic shows also the minor key associated with the major key.  (I'll explain later.)
Note that C major key is the same as A minor key.  Here's why:  the notes in the C major scale are

The notes in the A minor scale are:

The Key of C and the Key of A minor have the same notes and are therefore harmonic equivalents of each other.  Here's another example, chosen at random:

The A minor scale above is the Aeolian mode of the C major scale.  It has a distinct minor sound to it.  To play the Aeolian mode, just take the usual major scale and flat the 3rd, the 6th and the 7th notes of the major scale.

Notice the 3rd note in the A minor scale is a C.  "A major" chord is A C# E (the 1, 3 and 5 of the 7 note scale).  A C E is "A minor" chord -- the 3rd is always flatted in a minor chord, and C# becomes C.

The notes in the F major scale are F G A Bb C D E;
The notes in the corresponding minor scale of D minor are D E F G A Bb C.
Same notes, played in a different order.  The first is sounds like the first scale we learned in grade school:  Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do. The second has a spooky minor sound to it.

To find the minor equivalent of any major scale, go to the sixth note (or degree) of the major scale.  The sixth note will name the minor equivalent.  For example, in C scale, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, we see that A is the sixth note in C scale.  Therefore, A minor is the harmonic equivalent of C major.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Zen and the Art of Playing Bass

Finally, finally, finally, I am making a serious effort to raise myself from the ranks of amateur bass players to professional bass players.

I have a long way to go.  But I have learned, thanks to a bass teacher named Dale Titus, that it can be done with patience and repetition.

Oh, the learning regimen is fairly traditional:  learn scales, learn modes, learn arpeggios.  Absorb scale theory and how it relates to chords and keys.  Learn every inch of the neck.

However, a lot of successful bass playing (or playing any instrument) is great execution.  Getting your fingers on the right fret at the right time, without string rattle or buzz, plucking those strings accurately and quickly -- those skills are hard to attain.  You attain them by playing exercises (Titus calls them "chop builders") slowly at first, concentrating on a good sound.  You then slowly increase the speed of playing those chops until you can do it quickly as well as accurately.

So much of learning an instrument is developing the muscle memory to play it well and right.  Break it into its various parts and learn each part well, taking as much time as you need to do it.  Keep at it on a daily basis.  If you learn one small thing each day, your knowledge and skill will accumulate faster than you think.

I think this principle works for mastering just about any skill or body of knowledge.   It's like the old but useful analogy of the snowball rolling downhill.