Guitarists – the Second Class Musician?

Everybody plays guitar.  Uncle Harry, after too many glasses of wine might pick it up and start strumming.  Sister Mary Montesano leads a 2nd grade class in a rousing “Row Row Row Your Boat” on her acoustic.

But what really makes a guitarist?
Well, that depends and what you’re shooting for.  Not everybody wants to be in a jazz band, or a Metallica copy band or a studio musician.  But I will share some experiences with you from my college days as a music major.
Guitarists were a bit disregarded in my school for a few reasons: first, it was the most popular instrument.  Everybody seems to pick it up at one time or another, but not everyone has picked up an alto sax or messed with a basoon.  Second, most guitarists don’t read music and for most other instruments – sax, trumpet, piano, etc. that’s where all the other musicians start.  So we guitarists are illiterate (tablature NOT included), in the view point of the brass section.  And third, guitarists are somewhat used to being the “star”.  Guitarists get a lot of credit for showmanship over talent.  For example, I’ve seen rock stars stand on stage with one foot on a monitor, hit their low E strings and dive bomb it with their whammy bar and look triumphantly out on the screaming crowd.  Folks, this takes as much talent as slamming a door shut.  Yet we get adoration for such shenanigans.
So what does a guitarist have to do to get some respect around here?  (Or around a jazz band).
First, you need to be able to read music passably well.  This isn’t as rough as it sounds.  The challenge with learning to read music on the guitar is knowing where to play that C note since there are many positions on the guitar.  I got fairly good at reading when I was taking classical guitar classes at my local junior college.  It does require a classical guitar (acoustic with nylon strings) to get the whole benefit, but they start you in “First” position meaning you won’t go past your 3rd fret which allows you to really get to know the notes on the sixth string on the first three frets.  From there, you move on to Second Position and so forth.  With time and experience, you can scan a piece of music and start to get an idea of where you want to play it on the neck.  It may take a few tries but that’s what the studio musicians do (and other instruments as well – they don’t want any surprises either).
You can get a book on classical guitar or take a class at a local college or private lessons.  Classical guitar is a discipline and you’ll need to grow your fingernails out on your right hand (something I never got used to).  But spending *some* time in this area is a nice way to learn how to read music more fluently.
Second, be familiar with your chord forms – Major, Minor, Major 7, Minor 7, Dominant 7.  Then know the 9th chords – Major 9, Minor 9, Dominant 9.  From there you learn some of the “alternate” harmonies – min 7 b5, dom 7 + 9, etc.  You should start off learning the “Big” version of these chords, using 6 or 5 strings of the guitar.  Later on, to improve your chord “comping”, you should learn the 4 string versions.  In an ensemble, this gets you out of the pianist’s middle range (they get cranky when you step on *their* comping) and you get to play in a higher register.  A great book to recommend on this is one from my former teacher, Warren Nunes, called the “Jazz Guitar Chord Bible” and you can get it at or just do a search on his name.
Third, STOP PLAYING IN A BLUES!  Seriously, we guitarists have 3 favorite keys – G, A, and E.  Not only do you need to get familiar with the other keys, but you need to get proficient at changing keys during the song.  This is called “modulation” which rock songs and blues songs don’t usually do.  They stay in the same key the whole song.  But jazz songs can go all over the place.  I was playing in the Ohlone Junior College Jazz Rock combo class in 2007 and one of the few jazz tunes we did went from key of G to Bb to G to Eb.  The other guitarists looked like they were just teleported into a cornfield in Effingham, Illinois.  Deer eyes in the headlights.  Everybody was just all too happy to give me that solo.
One way to get proficient at this is to solo over the Cycle of Fourths which I’ll talk about in my next blog.
 Rock on, or in this blog, Read on!

Listen Up!!

I just got back from a trip to Southern California for my son’s Class 1 soccer team. Their last game was against a very good team and we lost, 0-4. Our coach, in a talk to the parents, made an interesting observation (and I paraphrase):

“The team we played was very good, especially in communication. They talked to each other more in this one game than our team did in all 3 games. “

I thought about how this relates to playing in a band. You can communicate both musically (getting louder or softer or playing a passage that signals the end of the song) or you can communicate with a look or a hand signal.

Getting comfortable in a band that has been playing together for years means this kind of communication. Everybody knows what to listen for. You replace anybody in the band and everybody has to acclimate to this new person. The change is dramatic. Replacing one person in a 5 person band can be quick (I did it once in 2 weeks time) but I had to listen for queues, look around and keep an eye on the bassist, check to see what the drummer was doing, etc.

And on a related note…..

Guitarists DON’T LISTEN!! We don’t. We want to crank the dang thing up to 11 and think “Check THIS out!!” and go crazy. When we end our solo, do we remember to turn down? Not always. Now the singer has to compete with an elevated decibel level and scream to be heard.

Exercise in listening: if you are advanced enough, sit down with another guitarist and just play free form. I used to do this with Bob Culbertson, another teacher at SMI. It would just flow. It was like having a musical conversation. It was give and take. We didn’t decide on what to play, we just came up with an idea the other built upon. We’d do this for 30 minutes at a time.

To sum: band members need to communicate effectively and listen to others.

Rock on,


Ways of Effective Practicing


The very word conjures feelings of dread and commitment. Maybe you think “I didn’t practice last week and my teacher really got on my case…maybe I’ll tell him I was sick or something…yeah, and my dog ate my pick!”

What you really need to do is structure your practice by setting goals for yourself and rewarding yourself for reaching those goals. And the goals have to be realistic, not something like “I’m gonna figure out Yngwie Malmsteen’s solo on ‘Riot in the Dungeon’ and I won’t eat until I nail it note for note!!” These goals, though admirable, lead to discouragement since they’re not practical.

Let’s say your teacher has an assignment for you to practice playing the G major scale against a II-V progression (Amin7 D7). If you have a tape recorder, you can tape those chords (most boom boxes have a built in mic) for say five minutes, then play it back and work the scales against it. Set a minimum time of 15 minutes to work on this every day, backing up the tape and replaying as needed. Once you’ve met this goal, you can crank your amp, put on Metallica or whoever and rock out. Have fun – hey it’s music! This is the reward time!

This goal is much more achievable and you reap good things from this. Sometimes if I have a hard time with playing a particular passage, I’ll say “OK, I’m going to play this 10 times a day until I get it right and it gets easier”, so you make the *work* the goal, not necessarily the end achievement (which is a longer term goal).

The problem is oftentimes we don’t work on new (translate: harder) things and play the old (translate: easier) things that we’re good at. If you discipline yourself to work on the hard things, they get easier! It’s true!

If you want to run a 10 mile race and haven’t run before, you’d have to lay out a practice/training schedule, starting with maybe one mile, and then increasing the distance say 10-20% every week until 10 miles is doable for you.

I have in mind to make and market a practice CD for the budding guitarists. It will consist of backup tracks of guitar, bass and drums and will play various chord progressions in various keys and it would last a significant amount of time (plus you can put your CD on “Repeat”). This will be fun to make and I plan to start working on this soon.

So keep practicing and be watching for my CD!


Brazen Plays Party

Hi folks –

It was a busy weekend around the Clark Ranch. I had family visiting me, I cleaned my fish tank (killing all fish accidentally in the process, RIP), and my band played 15 songs for a birthday party.

Our bassist, who works for a sound company, managed to snag the last JBL speaker out of the warehouse with a powered mixer. We had no monitors, but it was a back yard party and we couldn’t get too loud anyway.

This was our first time playing in front of an audience with our own equipment, and it was interesting to see how we lined up. For some reason I’m always on the left side of the stage, as I was in my last band. I don’t necessarily like it, but that’s where I end up.

We ran through our tunes and I think we played fairly well. We have some endings to work on, which is typical. Someone pulled my mic off the stand to test it, then when it was put back it was facing the wrong direction so during a song I had to stop playing and adjust it back while everybody laughed.

I decided to keep the momentum going by charting out three new songs to add at this Wednesday’s practice. I chart them with Google docs and then share them out to the band members. I added two Tom Petty songs and an oldie from Pat Benetar, Hit me with your Best Shot. I’m going to keep pushing the band for 3 new songs a week and there won’t be any excuses because we’ll have the charts.

I was also hoping to get some photos of the band playing. I know one person had a camera there but so far I haven’t seen any pics. Once I have one I’ll go ahead and post one here.

Keep strumming….


Visionary Philosopher?

I did it.  I fell for one of those “Tickle Tests” – this one was for IQ.  I don’t know why I need an impersonal website to tell me how smart (or not smart) I am, but something compelled me to do it.  Here is what I got:

Visionary Philosopher

Your IQ Score is: 140

Your mind’s strengths allow you to think ahead of the game — to imagine or anticipate what should come next in just about any situation. Because you’re equally skilled in the numerical and verbal universes of the brain, you can draw from multiple sources of information to come up with great ideas. The timelessness of your vision and the balance between your various skills are what make you a Visionary Philosopher.

In addition to your strengths in math and linguistics, you have a knack for matching and anticipating patterns. These skills and your uncanny ability to detect the underlying blueprint of most of life’s situations add to your Visionary Philosopher mind. Two philosophers who share the same combination of skills you possess are Plato and Benedict Spinoza. Spinoza had insight into how things worked in the world. He could envision a future based on the patterns he saw in life, and used mathematical logic as a structure within which to present his philosophical arguments. With that base he was able to use logic to formulate his theories. Borrowing from his linguistic strengths he wrote eloquent texts and, therefore, was able to bring his philosophical ideas and structure to the rest of the world. His story exemplifies the talents that are present in the Visionary Philosopher intellectual type.

Whatever you decide to do in life, you’ve got a powerful mix of skills and insight that can be applied in a wide variety of ways. You can expand your mind to understand a situation. Your strong balance of math and verbal skills will help you explain things to others. For example, if you were on an archaeological dig and discovered an object, you could probably use your deductive powers to figure out not only what the object was but also how it was used. Given your ability to put things together, you are more than capable of inventing a life plan that is in synch with your perspective on how things were, how they are, and how they might be one day.

Well, I guess I’m in good company.  Recognizing and using patterns is a very useful skill, actually.  It allows you to group notes in combinations that certainly make scale playing much more interesting and builds dexterity in your fingers.
Consider the G Major Scale: G A B C D E F# G
If instead of playing this scale straight, we alternate notes like this:
G B A C B D C E D F# E G and so forth, the pattern should at some point be clear to you and you continue this up the scale, then apply it descending.
You work on that, I’m going to try to arrange Plato and Spinoza in a jam session this weekend.  We’ll call ourselves “The VP’s”!
Rock on,

Band Dynamics

I could probably write a book on this subject alone…

A band is very much like any other small business. Most musicians cringe at the word “business” but unfortunately, after all the practicing of the intro’s, outro’s and back-up harmonies, you still need to market your band, promote your band, beg for jobs (perhaps in the beginning) and honestly assess where you’re at in a band.

I have to admit, the most fun I’ve had in bands is where we weren’t quite as serious. I really had no friends in the band I made the most amount of money with. It doesn’t have to be that way, and I hope that’s what makes my current band different. I want to be friends AND play out regularly with this band.

Band dynamics come into play no matter what age you’re at. You could be high school or college students, juggling final exams, SATs, and maybe a girlfriend or boyfriend. Or you could be working folk, where this is a side thing. No matter which situation you are in, if your band is going to play jobs (or “gigs”), you have to invest some time into it. Maybe some money too, if you need equipment.

In my current band, we have 5 very different people. One is a working professional who travels a lot (and thus misses practices, it can’t be helped). Another is in a new relationship and is off on weekends with their sweetheart (and thus misses practices). Another is a bit outside of the age range and needs to become more familiar with our set list. Another has no transportation and is trying to get up on their feet after various setbacks. And me? Oh I’m just perfect LOL. Well, to be honest, I’m a single parent who has 50% custody of my kids, I have a professional career in a high tech company, a girl friend, I teach and I do this band thing. Yes, I’m busy. My saving grace is I have a lot of years of experience, I pick up songs quickly, and that saves me a lot of time. I will also chart songs out and post on google docs, shared with the rest of the band, and that saves THEM a lot of time.

Usually a band will have a clear cut leader. In my current band, the leadership is somewhat shared, which is new to me. No one person wants to be the Fearless Leader with all the pushing and prodding that comes with it. I did step up to the plate yesterday and urged all the band members to make an effort for Wednesday’s practice since we are playing a birthday party this weekend. No pay, but like I said in previous posts – no deadline, no intensity. No one wants to go out there and look like a “fool”, or unprepared, even in front of a friendly audience.

So this Saturday’s performance is for yet another prod to get us all motivated to fill out our setlist. We currently have nearly 20 songs, but we need at least 3 hours worth of music to start playing for pay. If one set is an hour, and the other two 45 minutes (to allow breaks), that’s 150 minutes of music needed, and if each song is 5 minutes (which it isn’t, unless you start stretching out solos, repeat verses, or talk to the crowd) then you need a minimum of 30 songs. I’m hoping to push the band into learning 2 new songs a week, shunning the more complex tunes in favor of the quick and easy songs, like some Tom Petty or Cheryl Crow. Not to take away from any one artist here, but songs like “Breakdown” are 3 chords. Easy to knock out and people love them.

As we near “gig ready” status, there is also the need for a Public Address (PA) system. I am against “band” purchases, and more in favor of each of us owning a piece of the system – mixing board, speakers, monitors, etc. These are decisions each band has to make for itself. I don’t like the band purchasing model because if someone quits, we all need to buy that person out of their percentage of the investment. It just gets sticky. Of course, the way I’m proposing is that if someone quits, you just lost a piece of your PA! It’s a trade off.

This Saturday, a birthday party….and next, the world!

Jam on.


Brazen Debut

Hi all –

My band, Brazen, went up on stage last Wednesday (6/11/08) and knocked out 3 tunes. We were nervous, and there were mistakes, I’m not sure if people noticed them or not, but we sure did.

Due to logistic problems, we hadn’t practiced in a week. That probably weakened us more than anything else. The crowd, however, was very enthusiastic which helped a lot. The next day our email thread had statements like “When can we play there again and what do we want to play??” so it was a good shot in the arm for the band.

A note to all you guitarists out there – if the band gets lost in a song, follow the bassist, right or wrong (unless he’s the only one off). I had to follow our guy in one song. It’s like merging traffic, right? You don’t want to lay blame or have “stage rage” right then and there – you compromise the song to keep the integrity of the band together and talk about the mistakes later, in a non-confrontational way.

The house band that plays there played before us and after us and boy, do their years of playing together show. Everybody on their mark, everybody comfortable and they were good!

We’re playing a private party at the end of the month, more practice in front of a small audience. They are family, so it will be different, but still more pressure than a practice. I might get a good hot dog out of it too 🙂

Rock on,


A Real Treat

Tonight I went down to a local music store for my son’s drum lessons. My youngest son wanted to come along because he had heard there would be a “concert” there. I was skeptical, since I’ve never heard of anyone actually performing there, but nonetheless I said he could come with us.

When I walked into the store, I was met with a wall of sound, dive bombing lows, and screeching high harmonics. This guy knew his stuff and I was pretty intrigued. He was also a very nice, warm human being who had a great sense of humor and was highly intelligent.

Meet Doug Doppler, a local shredder who’s doing pretty well. He took lessons from Joe Satrianni and his latest CD is on Steve Vai’s label. These guys are heavy weights in the world of modern guitar.

Doug was plugging his latest Ibanez guitar – the S5470, which on sports a $1300 price tag. I have an Ibanez guitar, something I picked up in the 1980’s, which I like a lot, but I’m sure it’s nowhere in that class of guitars.

Doug also shared with us a bit of what his life is like, both on the road and in the studio. He was incredible gracious with all of our questions. His wife was there as well, manning the “merchandise” booth with his new CD “Nu Instrumental”.

I recommend checking it out. Doug is a real artist with incredible technique and a great sound.

Getting those feet wet and building a band…

It is time….

My band has taken a long time to incubate. In that time we’ve gone through 2 bassists and 2 drummers. Welcome to life in a band. I’m reasonably confident this line up will last a while, and depending on our success, could last a long time.

In setting up a band, you need to think about your repertoire. What is your target audience? If you are playing original music, perhaps you need to find a target audience. If you are going the old, established route and playing dance music, you need to consider again your audience. You need some slow songs too. Medium tempo songs tend to be hard to dance to. In fact, I recently suggested “Slow Ride” by Foghat as a tune everybody would enjoy, but after further examination, even though it would be fun to play, it’s not really a dance song.

We currently have about 20 songs on our list. That’s not enough to play 4 hours in a club. It’s about 2 hours worth of music. To play out, you need at least 40 songs and 60 is more like it.

So, with the starts, stops, and stalls of building this band, we only have 20 songs, but we plan to go to a local club here that has open jam nights on Wednesday. Babe’s Place in Livermore allows individuals or groups to sign up and go play 3 songs in front if a live audience. They have the equipment all in place and they are nice folks to boot.

I want to do this to maintain the fire in the band. After we play in front of some folks, the desire will be there to aggressively add the songs needed to get us some full gigs.

Another tip: get a deadline. I learned this from managing programmers in software companies. No deadline, no drive. Get a gig on July 21st and people start to panic: “Oh my god, we’re not ready!”, “We need to practice twice a week!”, “What other songs can we add here in a hurry?”.

We have begun to use Google’s online tools as a way to coordinate things. Google calendar to mark everybody’s availability, and Google’s documents to manager our song list and to rate our songs as good, ok, or needs work.

Pressure is good. It builds diamonds, pearls, and personal growth.

I’ll let you know how Wednesday goes….keep jammin’!


My name is Spencer and I’ve been playing guitar for over 30 years, and almost half that time was spent teaching it, as well as playing in clubs, weddings, and parties.

I received an AA degree in Music and have taken years of private lessons myself. I present to my students the theory, chords and scales as well as playing the songs they enjoy. My ultimate goal, however, is to enable others to be able to express themselves with guitar by improvising and writing music.

I’m currently putting together a website and plan to teach again in San Francisco East Bay area. I’ll put the link up when it goes live.

I’m also putting a band together and we have over an hour’s worth of music together so far. Band dynamics will probably be in this blog too, as there are good times and bad times with bands. But more on this later.

If you have a question or an idea for some new topic, please email me at or leave a comment here.

Happy Picking!