Friday, September 05, 2008

Guitar Day

From Brooks' website:

GUITAR DAY with Brooks Williams
@ Artspace 15 Mill St. Greenfield, MA 01301
Teens & Adults - Intermediate to Advanced
10 am - 5 pm Fee: $25
Phone: 413-772-6811 Email:
(Space Is Limited So Reserve Your Spot Early!)

Calling all guitarists! Fingerstyle, bluegrass, blues, rock, jazz, folk.

Come celebrate the guitar by spending a day playing together and making connections with other guitar enthusiasts from around New England. Guitar Day is a daylong guitar workshop that features technique building sessions in fingerstyle guitar, flatpicking guitar, chord wizardry and blues licks and tricks, as well as a duos and trios session where attendees collaborate on a piece of music together. This is a hand's-on workshop with lots of playing and jamming!

Workshops offered:
1. Bach's Cello Suite #1 in DADGAD: presented by Tony Astolfi. Explore an open tuning and try your hand at Tony's sublime fingerstyle arrangement of this beautiful piece!

2. Red-Haired Boy: presented by Gail Wade. Flatpick this traditional fiddle tune in standard tuning, learning both the melody and the bluegrass style chord backup.

3. Key To The Highway: presented by Brooks Williams. Rock out on this classic blues tune, learning bluesy riffs & licks.

4. St. Louis Blues: presented by Brooks Williams. Learn some new jazzy chords and swingin' rhythm to play this well-known W.C. Handy song.

5. Duos and Trios: workshop attendees will divide into groups of two or three and work on a tune together. Bring a favorite tune - or choose a tune from Brooks' extensive library of songs. This Guitar Lab will culminate in a showcase at the end of the afternoon.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Monday, June 23, 2008

When Less is More

A killer version of Merrily Kissed the Quaker:

I found this whilst seeking inspiration for the "groove" on this tune (I know the Pierre Bensusan solo guitar arrangement, with Cunla stuck on at the end). These guys rock it way harder than I have been. Why? Well, being a whole rock band helps, but there is another reason. In the Bensusan version (at least the very rigid version I've been rendering), the rhythm is totally straight:


Your basic 6/8 Jig rhythm. But the Brandos put a little twist on it:


And many variations. The 'AHA!' for me is that they get more with less by being more sparing with the rhythmic emphases. And they are always changing it up in suble ways.

Actually, Pierre puts tons of little variations in his rhythm, as well as bass line, harmonies, and ornaments:

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Thursday, June 19, 2008

From the Amazing Things show

A photo kindly emailed to me from Al Cath:

Sheesh -- I look so serious! Despite appearances, I really had a lot of fun playing last Saturday. Al also captured an AVI from the show... it is a very big file so I am still downloading it, but maybe it will be of sufficient quality to post here (via YouTube?)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

One more chance to see the guitarist this month

I am going to be playing at a music festival in Fall River, MA called "Dark Side of the June". The date is June 28, and my set will be early to mid afternoon. More details to follow... for now, just mark your calenders!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Manicure virgin no more!

"Guitar: An American Life" by Tim Brookes contains a hilarious-because-its-true quip about how guys start playing guitar in their teens to be cool and impress girls, and they end up in their 40s with expensive guitars, discussing nail care with other middle-aged men. Let's just say that yesterday afternoon, I took the next step towards this inspiring scenario.

Many very accomplished and respectable guitarists (including Pierre Bensusan, Tony McManus, and Martin Simpson to name a few) use some kind of fake nails on their right (picking) hand. Pierre tells the story, on his instructional videos, of how he went to see a manicurist in Paris after years of messing around with broken nails, superglue, finger picks and other re-inforcement strategies. So I am in good company. Really.

Yesterday I sheepishly walked into a little nail salon not too far from my apartment and explained how I wanted acrylic nails, not too long, no color, oh, and by the way, only on my right hand. Add to this story a very well meaning but heavily-accented non-native-English speaking Asian woman with a wide assortment of tools and chemicals. So, I sat while she filed (quite vigorously at times: "Gentle! It's my first time!"), treated, sculpted, dremeled, trimmed, ... you get the idea. The result afterwards was an odd exhilaration (ha! I finally did it! I feel so alive!), and a sensation not entirely unlike the one you get after visiting the dentist (this part of my body feels sore and oddly foreign to me).

I came home fearing the worst and was pleasantly surprised that my playing was only minimally affected (perhaps even improved -- I feel it is much easier now to play loudly). After sleeping on it (well, not on it...) it is beginning to feel a bit less sore and weird. Overall, I think this experiment is a success... so far.

Oh, yeah and it only cost me $30. And I have to go back in 2-3 weeks from now to have my nails maintained to the tune of who knows how much.

Things are going well for the concert this weekend. I am practicing around 2 hours every day, each song for about 20 minutes. And I am re-reading "The Perfect Wrong Note" by William Westney. Anyone who is serious about advancing on their instrument needs to read this book.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Who is this Tony guy anyhow?

I started making music late in high school, using the family computer (a Commodore Amiga 500) to compose electronic music in the mold of NiN, Filter, and Tool. My interest in the guitar was sparked by the desire to use higher fidelity samples than the ones I was able to find and rip out of other songs. Around this time I made a new friend, Dave Cox, an extremely talented drummer who had recently picked up guitar. He turned me on to the Allman Brothers, Phish, and Dave Matthews Band. When I went to UMass Amherst, I began to play guitar more and more, first on a Harmony hollow-body borrowed from my father, then on a cheap dreadnought borrowed from a friend. Eventually I bought my own guitar and began to learn more Dave Mathews tunes, as well as songs to play at the Christian fellowship meetings I was attending. My junior year, I upgraded to my first "good" guitar, a Larrivee D03. I was getting into Phil Keaggy (I knew about Phil because my parents listened to him a lot when I was little), and read an interview where Phil credited Michael Hedges as a major inspiration for his (then) recent direction on acoustic guitar.

So I went down to Newbury Comics and picked up two Hedges CDs: Oracle and Live on the Double Planet. I picked Oracle to listen to first. By the time the first track had finished, my mind was completely blown. My entire musical journey up until that point had been a search for a kind of emotional intensity, a deep expression where you could lose yourself in the music. The loudness of rock and metal/industrial music tickled that intensity for me; the freedom of jam bands approached the aspect of being wonderfully lost in sound. But here was one guy with an acoustic guitar doing exactly what I wanted to do. I was floored. I was enraptured. I had to play this music.

I signed up for a classical guitar class at the university, because I read that Hedges was classically trained, and I figured I needed some kind of grounding in a tradition (so many of the artists I admired seemed to follow the pattern of starting in a tradition and innovating from there). My encounters with the world of classical music education have been a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I have benefitted tremendously from the rigor and depth of classical technique and method. On the other, I have found it to be a very stuffy, arrogant, snobby, and restrictive culture. What else can I say? This is true. I dropped the class after a few weeks and continued to meander towards Hedges' oracle.

Around the end of my time at university, I met and began to study with a local guitarist of international renown, Brooks Williams. The time I spent learning from him got me unstuck from where I was and opened huge new avenues of playing for me. He is an extremely gracious and humble teacher, and his playing has this silky smooth, virtuosic, contageous quality to it. He is the sort of guy that makes you a better player just by watching him play!

I got married in 2003, and two years later moved from the Pioneer Valley to eastern Massachusetts, where I began to focus more on solo instrumental performing. I began to go to the local folk open mics (not an exact match for acoustic fingerstyle instrumentals, but my music has been well-received nonetheless). Out of this came my first open mic feature, my first opportunity to open for Brooks (at the Amazing Things Arts Center in Framingham, June 2006), and many ongoing friendships and musical collaborations.

My current focus is on arranging and recording Bach and traditional Irish fiddle music for solo guitar, as well as playing and singing at the local Vineyard Fellowship. I continue to be inspired by sacred and secular music alike, from Bach and O'Carolan to Bensusan and Keaggy. Even though my full-time "day job" is being a software developer at the MathWorks, music remains one of my primary passions.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The guitarist playing at Birthday Bash. Shannon came up with the idea of an open mic to help celebrate my turning 30. So we posted a sign-up and told everyone to bring songs and instruments. We had six acts, three of which were duos (for at least some part of their set). I played right about in the middle. Matt A. recorded the performances on a digital recorder set up on a tripod across the room. He has sent me the portion of the recording that contains my playing, and I am debating whether to edit and post here.

My impressions on the performance: it was surprising to me how nervous I managed to feel playing for friends in my own living room! I say managed to feel because it was clearly a fair bit of effort put forth to work myself into a state where playing guitar was barely possible. Nonetheless, I managed to get through County Down and the 2nd Law. There is a terrible meme/spirit/dysfunction/sickness lurking about in my brain that comes to the front every once and a while to say: "Ok, now you're on and the stakes are high. Screw this up and you're finished. What people think about you, what you're worth as a person, the validity of all the work you've put in up to now all depend on your performance in this moment. It'd better be good." Imagine for one second that it is my birthday party, and that there were two Tonys up there on the chair at the end of my living room, and one is saying such things to the other. What would any stranger think (much less a friend of Tony)? What a jerk! That guy putting all the pressure on is telling lies, doing something really terrible. Get out of there! Shut up! Take your pressure and your guilt and your high-stakes non-sense and LEAVE.

If only it were that easy. I borrow this little thought experiment from a very good book, "The Inner Game of Tennis" by W. Timothy Gallwey. It is full of insight for anyone engaged in any sort of real-time physical activity that requires technique, creativity, and is subject to performance critiques.

Thanks to everyone who came out and played; please come to see me on Saturday June 14 at Amazing Things in Framingham ( Also, come out to the Atwood's Dark Side of the June music festival at their home in Fall River, MA (post here if you need more info).

Monday, March 24, 2008

My home recording setup has a new component:

shiney new iMac! This was a very good idea, for the following reasons:
  • The iMac is a really, really nice machine - quiet, fast, compact
  • GarageBand is way easier (though probably not nearly as powerful) as Cubase, the package that came with my audio interface (a Focusrite Saffire)
  • The value of being able to leave the whole setup, well, set up and just sit down to use it whenever is hard to exaggerate.
Here's a quick recording I did Tuesday night (there are a couple parts that need a little work, but it is mostly there):

The 2nd Law by Michael Hedges

The quality I'm getting off the pair of SM81's going directly into the Saffire and then into GarageBand is quite good, I think. The whirring noise in the background is the humidifier in my music room.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Sunday, 3/16/2008

Practiced ~1 hr, Fare thee well (I have been playing this one long enough to know how to play around with it expressively, so that was a lot of fun), Cello suite 1 prelude, Slipper Hornpipe in DADGAD, Merrily/Cunla, and Murtach MacKhan. Overall, very fun, inspired playing, if not technically air-tight.

From working in the software industry, for a rapidly growing company that supplies software to Toyota/Denso, I've been learning in the past year about process-orientation and the "Toyota Way" (often called "Lean" in this country). Standards are used heavily at Toyota, but not in the way one might think: a standard in the Toyota culture is merely a statement of an existing process. It is a snapshot of where you are at a moment. Standards exist to be improved upon. It's viewed as a thought-trap to think of a standard as the right or perfect way to do something. Instead, middle and lower management are expected to constantly improve upon existing standards. This is change-for-the-better or kai-zen.

I read "The Perfect Wrong Note" late last year, and it has greatly influenced my thinking about practice and getting better at playing. The connection I see between this book and the Toyota view of kai-zen and standards, is that both advocate the capture of the current state of affairs into a snapshot or a standard. This is not a judgement nor does it have to be perfect (as if it could be!). It just provides a platform to figure out what needs work and how you can improve.

The problem with practicing a piece of music, mistakes and all, over many months to try to polish it up for performance is that most of the time you are addressing bits that don't require your attention, and the bits that do require attention only get hit once every 4 minutes or so. This makes my old method of learning music extremely inefficient in its use of time. There is no quick and easy way to get better, but in fact there is a quick and very very hard way to get better. The difficulty involves the concentrated application of attention towards solving very specific, scoped technical and musical problems. This requires a lot of energy and discipline. So the problem is not only knowing what to do but having available energy to spend and the will to spend it. One reason this is hard is because you have to say "no" to the fun of playing those parts you don't need to be practicing. Ouch. Practice time is work time. Play time is necessary too, but the two are very very different.

The problem always seems like time, but it most cases, it really isn't. We all have time, and you can't obliterate or create it. It's constant, always there: "what next?" The ability to decisively answer this question is an incredible asset.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Check out the Guitar Chords Blog:

This post is about CAGED, which is a very good paradigm for understanding standard tuning.

Its been a long while since I've posted or played out. I have my recording setup now, and am continuing to work on making a demo.

Last night practiced all in DADGAD on the Froggy (new strings needed!):
  • Toy for two lutes
  • Invention 4
  • The Day after the Feast
  • Voyage to Ireland/The Orphan Jig
  • Prelude, Cello Suite 1
  • Great is Thy Faithfulness
Monday, practiced in standard tuning, flat picking fiddle tunes: the slipper hornpipe and the top of the hill (a nice jig in A dorian). I went to Guitar Center on Monday and picked up some new picks: Dunlap Big Stubby 3mm. They are more comfortable to hold and sound nearly as good as the 1mm (blue) sharp Tortex picks. Guitar Center is always a very unpleasant experience. This time I looked at an Epiphone mandolin. While trying to tune it (limited success), I picked a few strings on surrounding acoustic guitars: each one tuned differently! Service people unhelpful. I had to buy picks on faith because they only come in little bags (no 'loose' picks). And I tried to use a trick I'd learned from a less unhelpful store clerk on a prior visit:

Q: "What is your name in the system?"
A: "Joe Customer"
Q: "Um, Customer... ok... you don't want to be in the system?"
A: "I was told if I did not want to give my real name I could say 'Joe Customer'"
Q: "Right..."

And this is when I am paying in cash, for a few picks! On previous visits, a plain response such as "I don't want to be in your data base, thank you very much" have been unacceptable! They refuse to sell you anything unless you:

A. Divulge personal information that is irrelevant to the sale (I am trying to give you money for goodness sake! Just take it!)
B. Lie about your identity.

Maybe some day they will get a clue.