Thursday, April 19, 2007

Rush for Aspiring Guitarists, Part Two

So why would an aspiring guitarist want to learn how to play Alex Lifeson's guitar parts to Rush songs?

Well, there's a lot he can teach you. I can summarize with two words: "fast" and "loose."

He's very fast. He can shred with some of the best of them, playing flurries of notes. But unlike some guitarists, he rarely sticks to a straightforward pentatonic or blues scale. That's valuable to learn. Beginners have a tendency to stick with the scales they know.

He's also a very loose guitarist -- he can zoom up and down the neck with abandon. He very rarely plays a straightforward rhythm part in a single locked-down position; instead, he's always playing very wide chords, blending open strings with fingerings halfway up the neck, and adding individual notes to arpeggios or chords.

He often plays partial chords, skipping strings and/or muting strings. These can be hard for beginners to master, because we're initially taught to strum all the strings, and tend to default to that. Learning how to play only partial chords accurately requires precise right-hand technique.

He often plays runs of notes "horizontally," along the string, while beginners tend learn to hold a fixed position and play in scales. Playing his lead lines will force you to get your hands moving along the neck. For example, the solo in YYZ comes in four parts; the last of these four parts is a flurry of picked notes, followed by a melodic series of hammer-on/pull-off notes, played entirely on one string.

Often his solos that seem to contain a lot of notes actually only contain a few -- he repeats notes, something beginners tend not to do, as they solo up and then back down a scale.

He uses a lot of bends -- string bends with the fingers, single and double bends, and bends with a whammy bar (or "tremolo," although this is a misnomer). I've never been able to get the hang of a whammy bar -- in part because the guitars I had all had really poor whammy systems that would throw the instrument completely out of tune if you touched it. So aggressive and precise use of the whammy bar is something I have yet to master.

But there's a downside to all this: it can be easy to get partway there, to play something that sounds vaguely like a Lifeson guitar part. But it is very, very hard to get the rest of the way there.

Because his parts are so unusual, most transcribers tend to get them correct only to a certain point and then punt, writing down a few chords. Even the tab you see that ought to give detailed fingerings is often wrong. Even when they are right, they may seem impossibly difficult to play. That can be discouraging. To the best of my knowledge, Lifeson has not released a "how to play like me" video training series. It's a bit of a pity -- it would probably sell quite well, since he is really a musician's musician and there are a lot of aspiring guitarists who would like to know just how he does what he does.

In their studio recordings, such as 2112, Lifeson often layers multiple tracks, using three or more guitar lines. It can be a bit of a challenge to pick them out, so there's an honest tendency to take the average -- "oh, he's riffing on an A major chord" -- and just play that. And it sounds mostly right, although if you go that route you haven't learned very much about what Lifeson is actually playing.

Is it any easier to learn off a live album? Well, this can be a little easier, but when playing live, Lifeson often seems to use even more effects -- more flange, more distortion, and more reverb. The distortion together with his artificial harmonics and flange tend to turn one guitar into a wall of sound. This makes it hard to pick out the details. A river of thirty-second notes can be pretty intimidating as well, especially in a Spanish Phrygian scale. He also works in feedback from his amplifiers, which might be hard to copy, especially if you're trying to play in an apartment with noise-sensitive neighbors.

The sheet music is spotty. Most of the Rush sheet music that is available is really arranged for keyboard, although sometimes you get chord symbols. There are some tab transcriptions. Some of them are quite inaccurate, but some of them are pretty good. So far, the best stuff I've seen is in this book, which features detailed tabs, although even these still seem to have some inaccuracies. The tabs available online tend to vary a lot in quality. Even if you have a very good tab, you may still have the challenge of figuring out exactly how to finger the part in question. That often comes down to a matter of taste and a guitarist's individual hands. There are some reaches and fingerings that some guitarists can play that I can't, because my hands are smaller.

But don't give up! You can learn a lot, if you are willing to put in some hard work.

Rush for Aspiring Guitarists, Part One

When I was fifteen or so, in High School, I had a friend who introduced me to various rock bands that he liked -- bands like Foghat, Styx, and Blue Oyster Cult. I liked them all right, especially Blue Oyster Cult, who I found to be fun because of their sense of humor. But as we went through his records I kept thinking "what else have you got?" In other words, the blues-rock of the late 1970s was starting to sound all the same to me.

Eventually he got to a weird album with a naked guy and a pentacle on the cover. "I don't really like this," he said. (I think it was mostly because he was uncomfortable with the naked guy). He put it on.

There are a few moments I will never forget. I will always remember the first time I saw Kubrick's movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, which blew my mind when I was perhaps ten years old. I will always remember the first time I kissed a girl. And I'll always remember that first needle-drop on Rush's 2112. It was the heaviest, hardest fastest rock I had ever heard, and I immediately wanted to learn how to play it myself. It had never occurred to me that it was even possible to put so much power and passion and speed into guitars, drums, bass, and vocals. Never mind that I couldn't even fret a barre chord. I wanted to sing it, too -- and back then I could hit those high notes. I spent so much time singing Rush songs, as well as songs by Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, in falsetto that for years I could really only sing on pitch when I sang in falsetto. Of course, Geddy Lee can't hit those notes anymore, and neither can I.

I shredded my fingers trying to learn to play that album, but gained enough hand strength to fret barre chords, and with the aid of a few lessons I began, slowly, to gain a little bit of technique and ability to play by ear. I can't claim to be all that good at it -- I know people who are better -- but with persistence I can generally get the job done.

Over twenty-five years later, I still turn to Rush for inspiration. You can argue the overall merits of Rush's music. I'm not going to claim it is all wonderful. They are, well, a little geeky. It isn't for nothing that early Rush is sometimes called "math rock." They loved odd time signatures and difficult-to-play passages that inspire musicians more than average listeners. Extended science fiction and fantasy epics like "Hemispheres" aren't to everyone's tastes. Their lyrics are often pompous and arty and vague. But there is no denying their instrumental and compositional skills.

Moving Pictures featured a couple of traditional hard rock songs that are very good by any standard, such as "Limelight." Even while playing rhythm, Lifeson just can't hold still; his backing is imaginative and busy. But I will always remember Moving Pictures for the instrumental "YYZ," which is actually -- don't tell anyone -- a jazz composition! "YYZ" -- as a structured jazz piece -- will be remembered. It was nominated for a Grammy award, but unfortunately lost. But in 2007 who remembers "Behind My Camel," the Police instrumental that beat it? That song doesn't even have an entry on Wikipedia.

For a number of years, after Moving Pictures and Signals, Rush began to produce music I didn't really like very much. Although every album had its moments, on the whole most of the songs seemed flabby and uninspired to me, often too slow and too soft, and too bombastic. More importantly, on these albums the band seemed to take themsevles far, far too seriously. Rush's best work has a sense of humor, and when they perform live it comes through. Geddy plays with a tip jar on his keyboard, Alex occasionally babbles nonsense into his microphone, and in general they look like they are having quite a bit of fun. But in songs like "Manhattan Project" and "Marathon" they were showing off their musical virtuosity, adding synthesizer washes and overdubbed choruses (played live using samples), and blindingly fast guitar soloes -- but somehow it just wasn't much fun. A whole series of Rush albums went by that I barely bothered to listen to.

Recently, it seems like the band has begun to get back some of that sense of enjoyment. In 2004 they released a short album of cover songs called Feedback. The covers are terrific. Their new release, "Snakes and Arrows," is for the most part quite good. They're tanned and rested! And there is a lot you can learn from their music. "Snakes and Arrows" has not one, but three, instrumentals. I think it is time Rush earned that Grammy for best rock instrumental.

Next time -- what it's like for an aspiring guitarist attempting to play Rush. Why to do it, what you can learn from it, and why not to do it.

First Post

I'm starting another blog, to be updated erratically like my other blogs. The topic is the guitar.

I've been playing on and off, mostly off, since I was about sixteen years old. I'll be forty this year, so you do the math. Am I any good? I'm not the best one to judge. I have strong basic technique, but I'm almost entirely self-taught. I'm undisciplined as a player and have a very minimal and eclectic repertoire. So, obviously I have a long way to go. What is my goal? I'd like to play with a band for fun, or for worship services. I'd like to record original music for podcast productions.

In High School, I performed the Rush instrumental "YYZ" with a bassist and drummer at a school variety show. It was pretty terrible, but I still count that among my proudest achievements -- for an introverted underachiever, it was a big thing to do! I played heavy metal with other kids in the garages of Harborcreek, PA, on a red 1968 Fender Mustang with racing stripe, now sadly long-gone.

It didn't sound very good, partly because I couldn't play very well, but also because the pickups in an original Fender Mustang don't put out much voltage, and just couldn't give me the crunchy, harmonic-rich tone I was looking for. Of course, it didn't help that I was playing through a measly little solid-state Peavey practice amp. So I was was always frustrated with that guitar, and eventually sold it. (As a side note, that Mustang, had I kept it in good condition, would be wroth a fortune today).

A few years ago I played electric and acoustic guitar, and occasionally Chapman Stick, with a small band at St. Francis of Assisi church here in Ann Arbor. We had a lot of problems, and I was inexperienced, but I learned a lot, particularly how to learn new material quickly and read and play a lot of chords in a lot of keys. I played the occasional solo. I learned a bit more about reading traditional musical notation, but I still can't really sight-read. I've forgotten a lot of my chord forms. Oh, and I had to sing, and on rare occasions sing harmony while playing. That can be a bit tough -- hearing a melody, playing an accompaniment, and singing a different line, the harmony, all at once. Pros do it all the time, but it was a big challenge for me.

These days I have sold off most of my music gear but I still have an Ovation acoustic and a customized and abused Jag-Stang guitar. I'm practicing again and trying to get back to the basics, get past my last plateau and break out of my bad habits!

What am I practicing? I'm getting back to some of the very first music I tried to learn back when I was sixteen. Songs by Rush, along with a variety of other material including some of the contemporary Christian rock songs I played with the St. Francis band. In my next post I'll write a little bit about Rush, the good and the bad, for aspiring guitarists.