Category Archives: Books

Keith Richards – “Life”

Few people in the history of the human race have had a life as unprecedented, indulgent, lucky, uninhibited, or impactful as Keith Richards’.  A full-fledged rock star since the age of 18, Richards has seen levels of excess and luxury unimaginable to even history’s most gluttonous monarchs.  A life even he never would have thought possible, Richards’ saga is one of mythical proportions, spawning enough mystery and folklore to fill volumes.  The creative force behind the greatest Rock n’ Roll band ever, Richards’ unlikely tale is sure to entertain even the least suspecting reader.

A book that in no way presents itself as “fine literature,” Life is a straightforward recollection of Richards’ journey from the rural wastelands of Dartford to international infamy as the original rock star – at least what he can remember of it.  Pieced together with the help of friends and contributors, this book is a fascinating story of a completely unprecedented life. Of course, it has its fair share of foul language, drug use, sex, violence, and let’s not forget, Rock n’ Roll, but Richards makes no attempt to glorify his past or impose his behaviors on others.  The focal point of the book is the music – something Richards serves above all else.  To put it simply, it’s the story of an English kid, immersed African-American music, who proceeds to use it as a vehicle for expression with a group of like-minded individuals, The Rolling Stones.  Like a lovable friend who just can’t keep it together,  Richards becomes an enticing character who, despite major flaws, you can’t help but empathize with.  Although a generally lighthearted read, Life will reveal a depth and sincerity behind Rock’s most notorious outlaw that will make you realize it’s not as easy as it looks.  As Keith says, “I’m not the guys I see on MTV, who obviously think they are me” – he is something far more complex.

One thing that I gained from reading Life is a greater appreciation for Keith as a musician and guitarist.  Recently, he was named # 1 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s “Top 100 Guitarists,” and I couldn’t agree more with their decision.  I mean talk about riff merchants – this guy is the wholesaler.  “Start Me Up,” “Brown Sugar,” “Happy,” “Satisfaction,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” – 40 Licks is a vast understatement.  The king of tone, Keith is instantly recognizable.  As a player, he is amazingly well versed in the blues vocabulary.  I mean, all of the Stones are heavy into early African-American Blues – Chess Records, Robert Johnson, etc.  They may as well have Musicology degrees with a major in Blues – they really know their stuff.  Not only that, they even recorded at Chess records in Chicago during their first visit to America, where they were mentored by Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters!  But I digress.  Keith may not have chops like EVH, Hendrix or Page, but he’s channeling somethings much deeper – he is the greatest rhythm guitarist of all time.  Who would have thought that the torch of African-American blues would be passed on to five White, English lads?  Perhaps that is why Keith cannot be killed by conventional weapons.

The real secret, that had many guitarists stumped for years, is Keith’s tuning.  Taught to him by Ry Cooder, Keith began primarily using open-G tuning in the late 60s.  From Low to High it looks like this  – DGDGBD.  Keith would also occasionally remove the lowest D string, giving him a 5 string variant.  This tuning is the distinctive characteristic of his sound.  Using what he calls “drone notes,”  Keith plays his signature IV/I – I phrase with barre chord shapes borrowed from standard tuning.  You’ll notice that open-G tuning isn’t drastically different form standard tuning, so it retains many elements of traditional guitar, but allows major chords to be played with a single finger – an elegant solution for getting an intoxicated Richards to play otherwise difficult progressions.  But in all honesty, it’s genius.  Few guitarists have fully embraced alternate tunings or applied them in such a creative manner.  Most people will toy with open-E, common to slide guitar, and hardly break out of the standard lick repertoire.  Richards took a unique alternate tuning and made it his iconic sound, and the sound of Rock n’ Roll – no small feat.

Overall, Life is a worthwhile read that demystifies one of the greatest cultural icons of the 20th century.  Hearing the tale from his perspective, you realize that there is a primal element to Keith’s philosophy.  A modern-day pirate, an adventurer in cultural exploration, Keith has simply lived his life the way he has wanted, all the while serving music like a god.  A man who seems to know no bounds, Keith developed his own moral code, which he strictly abides by, one that you may find more chivalrous than expected.  So if you’re a Rolling Stones Fan, Rock history buff, or just want a fun read about an unimaginable Life, check out Keith Richard’s Life.

“Everyone talks about rock these days; the problem is they forget about the roll.” – Keith Richards

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“Melodic Expressions: The Art of the Line” by Jon Maclennan

Today, there are endless ways to learn about the guitar.  From traditional teachers, to YouTube, to books, to good old fashioned trial and error, there are so many ways to go about your journey towards guitar mastery and musical nirvana.  But what if there was a new medium that combined the best of all these methods?

My good friend, fellow UCLA alumni, and passionate guitar player Jon Maclennan has just released an iBook titled, “Melodic Expressions: The Art of the Line,” designed specifically for the iPad.  What is an iBook?  It’s a “multi-touch textbook,” an interactive electronic book that integrates audio, video, photos, graphics and more, bringing content to life in ways previously unimaginable.  It’s everything you’d get from a book, and then some.  Plus, it’s digital, so you can store thousands of iBooks in a single iPad, while saving the trees!

Like me, Jon is an avid fan of guitar great Carl Verheyen, and Carl’s approach to improvisation.  In short, this school of playing is based on “lines,” instead of scales and arpeggios.  So often guitarists become trapped by scale shapes and boxes that ultimately inhibit their melodic creativity.  With this new alternative approach, the player practices “lines,” or melodic phrases, that can be used in improvisation.  In the same way a player would use a scale shape or an arpeggio when improvising, they can use these “lines” to create far more interesting and creative phrases, and ultimately more personalized expression.

Jon’s book is divided into three sections – Major, Minor and Dominant expressions.  Each section is filled with various licks, corresponding to the given harmony, that range from Rock to Blues to Jazz and even Country.  With the interactive iBook medium, each lick has multiple audio samples, and the option for you to plug into your own iPad and play along!  There’s also a “general tips” section, where Jon will teach you  how to create your own melodic expression and cultivate your own personal harmonic vocabulary.  Very cool!

Ultimately, I find this approach to improvisation and general music making to be the most fun and effective.  Although it’s important to familiarize oneself with scales and arpeggios in order to understand music in a theoretical way, these tools should not become crutches in developing your melodic voice and improvisational style.  It’s much more fun to create exciting lines and phrases that express your personal style and sound like you.  Although at first it may be difficult to write your own licks, books like Jon’s are a great place to learn the craft and gather inspiration.  So check out Melodic Expressions: The Art of the Line” today on iTunes and take the first step on your journey towards developing your own personal melodic sound!

Check out this promo video on “Melodic Expression: The Art of the Line” for more info, and be sure to check out Jon Maclennan’s website for more about him and his music.

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“LZ-’75: The Lost Chronicles of Led Zeppelin’s 1975 American Tour” by Stephen Davis

Along with the Beatles, Led Zeppelin are the definitive “band.”  With four distinct personalities,  unprecedented success, an iconic sound, and loads of unusual behavior that have evolved into legend, LZ raised the bar for every Rock n’ Roll band to come.  Maintaining a well protected mystique during their most prominent years, few know the true story behind the world’s greatest rock band.  In 1975, LZ embarked on a North American tour that would go down in Rock history as one of the most wild and legendary tours ever.  One lucky, young journalist, by the name of Stephen Davis, was invited to join the party.

LZ had just released the now classic album, Physical Graffiti, and used this tour to promote new songs like “Kashmir,” “The Wanton Song,” and “Trampled Under Foot.”  Davis, one of the few members of the press that LZ trusted, was given a backstage tour pass, personal interviews, and a seat on the infamous Starship airplane.  His entire experience was documented in three notebooks, which Davis lost for 30 years – only to be rediscovered in 2005.  That discovery led to this book.  Unveiling some legendary events – like LZ’s stay in Los Angeles – providing honest criticism of performances, and giving insightful details about the people and environment of LZ’s world, Davis paints an enthralling picture, drawn from the eyes of a young journalist living the dream.

With many hilarious and unbelievable stories that have become Rock folklore, greatly influencing the cult classic Almost Famous, LZ-’75 is a must read for any Zeppelin fan or Rock history buff.  A relatively short and easy read, this book takes you back to a time when Rock n’ Roll ruled.  It’s hard to imagine, but in 1975 LZ were the most commercially successful band in the world – akin to a modern-day Rihanna or Katy Perry.  Dethroning the Beatles, LZ played for the largest crowd in history, and in 1975 Physical Graffiti was No. 1 on the Billboard Charts.  Davis’ tale is an insiders look on how the band members and entourage kept their sanity, and kept the show rolling amidst this unprecedented success.  From Page’s battle with a broken ring finger to Bonham’s split personality to Plant’s historic quotes (“I am a golden god!”) to John Paul Jones’ subdued English manner, Davis shows the real Zeppelin, warts and all, as they once again crossed the pond to conquer America’s youth.

So check out LZ-’75 by Stephen Davis for an entertaining and unimaginable look back at the high water mark of Rock n’ Roll!

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Bach: Sonatas and Partitas For the Violin

Since the 1980s, the electric guitar has had a romance with classical music.  From neo-classical shredders, like Yngwie Malmsteen, to Eddie Van Halen’s baroque styled tapping, to Steve Vai playing Paganini’s 5th Caprice in”Crossroads,” electric guitarists have been fascinated by the techniques and harmony used in classical music.  Although written for acoustic instruments, distortion and amplification can breathe new life into classical pieces and add an intensity otherwise unattainable.  Also, many of these pieces are technically demanding, particularly when adapted for electric guitar, an instrument for which they obviously were not intended.  For this reason, almost every accomplished guitar player emphasizes the importance of studying and performing classical music.

Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for the Violin are some of the most popular classical pieces for electric guitarists to learn.  Aside from being great compositions, they’re a good place to start your journey into classical music because all the pieces are written in treble clef and the violin has a comparable range to the guitar.  A collection of six works composed by J.S. Bach, this book is a great introduction to the language of classical music, covering major and minor tonalities, various tempi, different rhythmic meters, and a wide range of keys.  The most famous movement is “Chaconne” from Partita No.2 in D Minor, but you’ll be surprised how many melodies you recognize throughout all of the pieces.

And don’t think this is just applicable to modern guitar shredders!  This book was originally recommended to me by the great Jazz guitarist, Adam Rodgers, who, like many other guitarists, has spent years studying these pieces.  J.S.  Bach has also been a huge influence on Ted Greene, Joe Pass, and Tommy Emmanuel, just to name a few guitar masters.  And let’s not forget about Bach’s massive influence on music in general!  Overall, studying classical music is an amazing way to improve your technique, knowledge of harmony, compositional skills, and sight reading ability – plus, gain exposure to some beautiful music.  So follow in the footsteps of many guitar greats and get yourself a copy of Bach’s Partitas and Sonata’s for the Violin!

And now, enjoy a performance of the “Giga” movement from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor by one of my all time favorite guitarists, the amazing Paul Gilbert!

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“Skydog – The Duane Allman Story,” written by Randy Poe

Anybody with a goal needs a role model or hero through whom they are inspired and educated.  As a musician, I find it extremely helpful to read biographies written about my idols.  By reading about someone’s life, you can learn enormous amounts about their character, their journey to success, their struggles, and how to apply their experiences, and resultant wisdom, to your own life.  Often times a retrospective look can easily identify the positive factors contributing to a person’s life and achievements, and point out the negative, helping future generations avoid the same pitfalls.

My most recent read was “Skydog – The Duane Allman Story,” written by Randy Poe.  The Allman Brothers are one of my all-time favorite groups, and Duane, one of my guitar heroes.  This book is the definitive biography of the man and the group, and truthfully tells the tragic tale of their haunting success.  From Duane and Gregg’s’ early childhood, to Duane’s sudden death, to the 2000 era Beacon Theater concerts, this comprehensive book has it all.

One of the great lessons I learned from this book was about the power of a team, or a group of people with a unified goal.  Much like a sports team, a band needs people at different positions to function maximally.  This could be drummers and bassists, songwriters and businessmen, personalities – there are many dynamics that make up band chemistry.  Duane and Gregg had each achieved moderate success in the late 60s, but it wasn’t until that fateful jam with Dicky Betts, Butch Trucks, Berry Oakley and Jaimoe Johansen, that they became a force to be reckoned with.  When this band, just like a sports team, was “on,” there was no stopping them.

Another interesting thing about the Allman Brothers was their mixture of “high” and “low” art.  All hailing from the South, their music was drenched in Blues, Country and Folk traditions – the music of the people.  These musics are typically orally communicated (no written music), lacking sophisticated harmony, and designed for purpose – emotional relief, work song, etc.  Conversely, the Allman brothers were heavily influenced by Jazz music, mainly John Coltrane and Miles Davis.  This music emphasized intellect, complex harmony, and extended instrumental improvisation.  Fusing elements from all of their influences, the Allman Brothers created a unique new sound, combining the Blues feelings with Jazz improvisation, instrumental compositions and Rock music.  This blend gave birth to some of the most original songs in Rock n’ Roll, like “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and “Midnight Rider.”

Unfortunately, the bands’ greatest commercial success would come after the death of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley.  Just 25, Duane was killed in a motorcycle accident in the bands’ hometown of Macon, Georgia.  Not long after, and just three blocks away, Berry Oakley, 24, was also killed in a motorcycle accident.  The death of these two key members was a crushing blow to the group, who were in the midst of recording their most famous album, “Eat a Peach.”  Much like other bands with iconic fallen leaders – Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones – the Allman Brothers’ losses thrust them into a new musical direction, paying tribute to the deceased, while trying to fill their void.  When “Melissa,” “Ramblin’ Man,” and “Jessica” skyrocketed the Allman Brothers into commercial stardom, it was a haunting success that should have been shared by all.

Ultimately, this book is a great read for any Allman Brothers fan or Rock n’ Roll history buff.  Outside of the ABB, Duane was an active sideman who contributed to many sessions, most notably Derek and The Domino’s’ “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.”  His story is riddled with appearances and anecdotes from many cultural icons, connecting the dots between the ABB, British music and American Pop.  A unique, inspiring, and tragic saga, “Skydog – The Duane Allman Story” is a must read for any aspiring musician.

“There ain’t no revolution, it’s evolution, but every time I’m in Georgia I eat a peach for peace.” – Duane Allman

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Ted Greene – “Chord Chemistry”

As in any field of study, countless volumes have been written about music.  With the increasing popularity of the guitar, particularly in the last 50 years, a wealth of guitar literature has been established, much of it penned by the instrument’s greatest masters.  Today, many of us learn from teachers, in person, but truth be told, if we were all well disciplined, self-motivated students, we could learn everything we would ever need to know about the guitar from books.  Although it is immensely helpful to have a teacher synthesize and communicate this information, some books hold a special knowledge only receivable though the intimate reading, studying experience.

In the “books” section of Riffs of Wisdom, I will shed light on some literature that could greatly help all guitarists on their journey towards musical nirvana.  Some will be advanced, theoretical books, some will be instructional methods, some will be important collections of scores, and some will just be plain fun reads!  Ultimately, these books have helped me gain many Riffs of Wisdom, and will hopefully teach you a few too.

The first book I’m writing about is a guitar classic, and can be found in many guitar players’ bookshelves – “Chord Chemistry,” written by Ted Greene.  Although Ted wrote four significant works about the guitar, this is by far his most well known.  Ted was primarily a solo, finger-style guitarist.  He is most commonly depicted with a vintage Telecaster, and Fender amp, staples of his signature tone.  A master of music theory and harmony, Ted became famous for his intricate solo guitar arrangements, often turning Jazz standards, Pop tunes, and Beatles’ songs into gorgeous guitar ballads.  He also was well known for his mastery of the blues, on which he could improvise endlessly, implementing walking bass lines, harmony and melody.  Much like his contemporary, Lenny Breau, Ted was also well known for his use of artificial harmonics and close-voiced harmony, similar to that of a pianist.  Overall, he was an amazing, unique player – check him out on YouTube.

But more so than a player, Ted was a great student of the guitar – and as a result, a great teacher.  Ted had Asperger Syndrome, a mild form of Autism, that made him an extreme introvert and an obsessive person.  Ted hardly left his apartment (his number of public performances can be counted by hand), and his greatest obsession was studying the guitar.  He hosted a vast number of students in his guitar den, which was cluttered by stacks upon stacks of papers, many pertaining to his studies.  He would conduct in depth analyses of J.S. Bach, Wes Montgomery, and different musical styles.  He could improvise any tune in accurate Baroque styling, and had an impeccable ear for harmony.  Many students were fortunate enough to learn from this guitar master in person, but for the rest of us, Ted left four jam packed books – Chord Chemistry, Modern Chord Progressions and the two part Single-Note Jazz Soloing.  And although these books may seem thin, they are dense!

As Ted writes, Chord Chemistry “examines chords and their application.”  This is not a beginner’s book, but Ted makes an effort to bring the reader up to speed, explaining different chord types and their purposes.  The rest of the book is an attempt to translate Ted’s complex harmonic language.  Some of the most valuable sections discuss specific chord substitutions, when they are appropriate, and the effect they will have.  There is also a dense portion of the book where Ted diagrams all of the chord voicings he uses – and believe me, you would not have thought of many of these!  They are also important sections about the Blues, right hand technique, Rock progressions, and counterpoint.

Overall, this book is dense!  Don’t expect to take it all in the first time.  It’s been on my book shelf for years, and I constantly revisit it, always learning something that I couldn’t previously comprehend.  If you put in the time and effort, this book will greatly help you progress, not only on your guitar, but on your journey towards musical nirvana.

“Nobody loses at guitar if they put in the time.  Something good always shows up.  It’s all consistent with life’s big lessons.  Patience.  Determination.  Love.  Goals.  Finishing a job.”  – Ted Greene

Check out the Ted Green website for more info

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