Category Archives: Players

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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Stevie Ray Vaughan

I recently visited the “live music capital of the world” –  Austin, Texas – a city drenched in American culture.  Although its roots date back to the mid 19th century, in the last 50 years Austin has become well-known as a hotbed for musical artists.  From country blues to Texas swing to “South by Southwest,” Austin is a city on the pulse of American music culture.

One of the greatest musical treasures and cultural icons to emerge out of Austin was Stevie Ray Vaughan.  From local guitar hero to international blues ambassador, Vaughan is now a legend.  Achieving great success with his group, Double Trouble, Vaughan pioneered the sound of modern blues guitar, evolving what Albert King, Buddy Guy, and Jimi Hendrix had previously made contributions to.  But more than just a blues artist, Vaughan crossed over into pop culture.  His debut album Texas Flood went double-platinum, and he was a featured musician on David Bowie’s infamous Let’s Dance.  SRV continued to make groundbreaking records and give inspirational performances until his early death in a tragic helicopter accident following a show with Eric Clapton.  At age 35, SRV made an early departure, leaving behind a legacy that is still shaping the music world today.

Aside from his amazingly innovative and identifiable playing style, SRV is known for his guitar tone.  Although he used other guitars, Vaughan is almost exclusively depicted using Fender Stratocasters, most often a 1962/63 model called “Number One” – his favorite.  He used “heavy” .12 gauge strings which, like many other blues greats, he tuned down a half step, thus allowing greater flexibility when bending strings.  Another crucial element to his distinctive tone was a 40-watt Fender Vibroverb amp, which he often blended with other amps, most notably a 150-watt Dumble.  SRV was also a huge proponent of the infamous Ibanez Tube Screamer overdrive pedal, which became a staple of his dirty sound.  Fascinated by the endless combinations of all elements of guitar tone, Vaughan created many iconic tones that enthusiasts everywhere are still trying to emulate!

So in a nutshell, Stevie Ray Vaughan was one of the most innovative guitarists and musicians of his era – a true American musical icon.  As you walk the streets of Austin, Texas today, you can hear Stevie Ray Vaughan everywhere – in every club, band, and musician contributing to this musical hub.  The echos of his legacy still ring loudly, and his playing continues to inspire generations.  Next time you’re in Austin, be sure to visit the Stevie Ray Vaughan memorial statue to pay tribute to one of America’s greatest cultural icons, SRV.

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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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Vreny Van Elslande – Are you ready to Rock?

Not enough good things can be said about Vreny.  One of the best kept secrets of Los Angeles, Vreny is arguably the most professional guitar teacher in the world.  Not only that, but he is an extremely charismatic person with many diverse interests, which all combine to make him the ultimate guitar teacher.

Born and raised in Belgium, Vreny has an amazing list of credentials.  After a year in the military, Vreny first attended the Academy of Music and Word in Ypres, Belgium, completing a 10-year study on classical guitar and composition in just 7.  Following this, Vreny graduated Summa Cum Laude from the Berklee College of Music, earning a B.M. in Jazz Performance and a B.M. in Music Production & Engineering.  Since then, Vreny has lived and worked in Los Angeles as a free-lance guitarist and producer, but mainly as a teacher.  Vreny’s goal is to “make the world an even more fun place to live in, by sharing the love for music through education.”  Outside of musical academia, Vreny is also an avid psychology enthusiast, speaks five languages, and is a general intellectual, making him an expert on the art of learning.

Personally, as a guitarist and an individual, I owe a lot to Vreny.  Over 2 1/2 years, he took my playing to new heights, giving me an incredibly deep knowledge of the mechanics of music and the guitar, and a great confidence in my ability.  But more than anything, Vreny taught me how to learn.  He pushed my ability so much further than I even thought possible, and showed me, through my own progress, the way in which our brains function.  There were many times when I laughed at the impossible difficulty of a task he assigned, when only weeks later, I found it simple.  And this is not because of my ability, but because of Vreny’s structured teaching style that maximizes results and compliments the brain’s natural process of learning.  Vreny showed me how to target a goal, create a plan of attack, and reach it – a skill that I have since applied to every area of my life.  I could go on for ages, but in short, Vreny is without a doubt the most professional and effective teacher I have ever had.  If you want to learn about a certain musical style, music theory, engineering, life, or just improve on guitar, contacting Vreny is the best way to realize your goal.

So check out Vreny’s website, Zot Zin Guitar Lessons, for more information. He does private lessons, group lessons, and webcam lessons, so get in touch with him now – I guarantee you will not regret it!

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Lollar Charlie Christian Pick Up

In the world of aftermarket Pick Ups, Lollar is a breath of fresh air.  Started by expert guitar luthier, Jason Lollar, Lollar specializes in boutique PUs for guitar, bass, and steel guitar.  Unlike most aftermarket PU companies, which are geared toward high output, modern tones, Lollar makes classic, vintage-styled PUs – using modern technology to achieve classic tonality.  Their product range is probably the most unusual and diverse of any PU company, making Stratocaster, Telecaster, Humbucker, P-90,  Jazzmaster, Charlie Christian, and “Miscellaneous” PUs.  Within these categories are many classics, like the Stratocaster Vintage Blackface, Dog Ear P-90, ’52 Tele Neck PU, and special PUs inspired by Peter Green, Johnny Smith, and Charlie Christian.  Jason Lollar also makes some unique, one of a kind PUs, like the Chicago Steel, designed for slide playing, Single-coil within a Humbucker, and “the Broiler,” which has a bell-like tone a la John Lennon.  Ultimately, Lollar is constantly pushing the boundaries of traditional PUs, creating exciting and new inventions to compliment any playing style and achieve any tone.

For those of you who don’t know Charlie Christian, he is one of the original guitar legends.  Christian was a key developer of Bebop, the language of improvisation, guitar technique, and was one of the very first people ever to take an amplified guitar solo!  He was most well-known as a member of Benny Goodman’s Sextet, one of the first integrated bands, but has become legendary for his influence at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem – the birthplace of Bebop.  Here, in after hours jam sessions, Christian would exchange choruses with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, and other Bebop greats, as they developed this new style of Jazz.  Christian’s improvisational style is his greatest legacy.  Often said to be “horn-like,” Christian was one of the first guitarists to play single-note solos instead of chords, emulating the solos of a horn.  Through his single note improvisational style, Christian invented many phrases, licks, and ideas that would become building blocks for the language of Bebop.  His influence can be most strongly heard in Wes Montgomery, who learned to play by transcribing Christian’s solos.  Adding to his legend, Charlie Christian died at age 25 from tuberculosis, leaving an incredible legacy behind.

The style of the early pick ups used in the first electric guitars have become known as Charlie Christian PUs.  Preceding Humbucking technology, these PUs were single coils, but had a different sound than the modern-day single coils you would find in a Strat.  They had a depth and richness more akin to a P-90, and a unique fullness that set them apart from other PUs.  Today, Lollar makes Charlie Christian PUs designed to be housed in a traditional arch-top guitar, but their most popular CC model is designed for neck position in a Telecaster.  This is the PU I have put in my Telecaster, and it sounds amazing.  Putting a Lollar CC in a Tele achieves a deep, bluesy tone a la Ted Greene, Keith Richards, and even Jimi Hendrix.  Although you lose some of the “spank” associated with the Telecaster, you gain a new dimension of tone that is sweeter and richer than the conventional Telecaster sound.  I originally used this PU to adapt my Tele for a Jazz setting, but as I have experimented more, I find it’s a perfect sound for Blues, Rock, Pop, and Folk-Rock.  It makes my Tele sound more like a Strat, but even more harmonically rich.  The only downside was the shape of this PU required my local shop to cut my pick guard, an operation they weren’t too familiar with.  However, they learned, and did just fine, leaving me with a unique and great sounding modification to my Telecaster.

So if you’re interested in after market pick ups that will help your guitar, and your tone, stand out from the crowd, check out Lollar Pick Ups!

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“American Guitar” with Doug Morier @ Westwood Music Center, Los Angeles

Once again, I am introducing a new section to Riffs Of Wisdom, two in fact -“Happenings” and “Players.”  One of the most significant and educational ways to progress on your journey towards musical nirvana is to learn from other players.  Whether it’s through books, videos, or a good old-fashioned face to face meeting, other musicians, more or less experienced, can teach you valuable lessons.  It’s often said that one hour of practice with another musician is worth ten alone, and you never know what kind of helpful knowledge someone might have – don’t judge a book by its cover right?  Plus, isn’t that what all this practicing is about, actually playing music?  So without further adieu, I present our first “happening” and “player” . . .

Doug Morier is a Los Angeles based guitar player who specializes in Bluegrass and Old-time American Music.  A fellow New England immigrant, I first met Doug a few years ago when I joined the UCLA Old Time String Ensemble.  Ever since, I’ve seen Doug act as the unofficial spokesman for Old-time music and all things Americana, this side of the 405.  Doug also performs his own original music, drawing influence from the aforementioned styles, and performs locally with his group, the L.A. Bluegrasshoppers.

As long as I’ve known Doug, he has always been a great teacher, totally open to revealing the secrets of the craft.  At last, Doug has created his own weekly teaching series called “American Guitar,” every Wednesday night at 6PM at the Westwood Music Center.  For those of you that don’t know, Westwood Music is one of the coolest guitar shops in the world, with an amazing staff and inviting environment – but I’ll save that for another post.  “American Guitar” will cover all the bases of Old-time American music.  Flat picking, finger style, accompaniment, basic music theory, traditional songs, and lots of licks, this class will give you everything you need to begin your quest for musical nirvana – American style.  Plus, Doug is a great player, with knowledge far beyond these parameters, who will gladly entertain any special requests, and make great recommendations for outside resources.  So grab your gi-tar and head down to the Westwood Music Center this Wednesday for an Old-time American musical education!

“American Guitar” @ Westwood Music Center, 1627 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles CA – All classes $20 or 2 for $35

For more on Doug Morier, check out Doug’s website, and for more info on the Westwood Music Center, and their classes, check out the Westwood Music Center website.

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