Throughout the past century of music, there has been a huge amount of change. Movements have come and gone, while technology has given people access to the immense diversity of music. When you step back and look at some of the biggest changes, minimalism stands out as one of the most impactful. Minimalism in western music, which sprouted in the mid-20th century, can be found today everywhere from electronic dance music to the orchestra.
Within Melodics, you might have come across the term ‘minimal’ or ‘minimalism’. Maybe you’ve heard these terms used when describing a dance track or a piece of art. Maybe this is totally new to you. Either way, it can be tricky pinpointing what people actually mean by this. Does a piece of music need to include minimal content, structure, or have a short duration, in order to be considered minimalist?Does minimalism make the music simple?
Let’s first acknowledge that minimalist music can have many different definitions. Among them is that minimalist music uses limited musical materials. I once had an acclaimed professor of music history at my college describe minimalism as music where ‘all the voices are immediately apparent.’ While most definitions like these aren’t necessarily wrong, they don’t get the full picture either. Music from oft labeled ‘minimalist’ composers, like John Adams or Steve Reich, is richly orchestrated, deep, and full of motion and change. On the other hand, when you’re spinning tracks by Plastikman you’ll hear just a synth and kick repeat the same couple notes for several minutes at a time. So if minimalism can range from the club to the orchestra, and from 50 instrumentalists to 2 – 3 synths, what else can we use to describe minimalism other than ‘limited musical material’?
One of the most important elements frequently left out when talking about minimalist music is the concept of process. Often times, it doesn’t matter how many voices are active. What’s more interesting is how they’re changing. In minimalism the excitement comes from the discovery of process. One voice can split into two or three. A synth’s tone can slowly evolve over the course of 10 minutes to a steady beat. Minimalism is best enjoyed when you discover the pattern, or the ‘rule’ behind how changes in the music are made.
Still feeling a little fuzzy on minimalism? Dive into our keys course on Minimal Music. You’ll have the opportunity to experience some of these ideas first hand.
For your listening pleasure, here’s some amazing examples of minimalist ideas in music:
Step1 (Stefanie Anderson) is a music producer, turntablist, live electronic music performer, music educator, and entrepreneur based in San Francisco’s Bay Area. Since 2016, she’s run the Sequence One music production school with her business partner Lenny Kiser. As a music maker and performer, Stefanie’s personal practice is built around the trifecta of beat-making, finger drumming, and turntablism, skills which are all on full display in the impressive new ‘Scratch, Sample and Push’ live performance video routine she recently created for Ableton. Below, Stefanie talks about putting together the routine, and how Melodics helped her developed her finger drumming skills. She also explains her thoughts on turntables in the digital production era.
Let’s talk about your new performance video. In it, you combine Ableton Push and a turntable to create a blend of real-time sampling, beat-making, finger drumming, and scratching. What was it like putting them together?
It was a learning experience. Everyone’s workflow is different, but for me, the song idea comes first. Then I figure out how I’ll adapt it for a live performance. Which parts will I play on the controller? Which parts will I play on the turntable? How will I transition between them? You’re going to run into limitations in terms of what’s possible to play live, so the original song idea inevitably evolves as it gets adapted for the stage. It’s a fun problem-solving exercise. I always learn new tricks in Ableton every time I work on a routine.
Your video included some excellent finger drumming. How did you develop your skill set from DJing to include beat production and live electronic music performance?
For me, production and finger drumming evolved simultaneously. As soon as I started making beats, I ran across YouTube videos from artists like Jeremy Ellis and AraabMusik. I knew that I wanted to learn finger drumming right away. It reminded me of turntablism: it’s tactile, fun, rhythmic, and it requires skill and technical mastery. At that time, though, there really weren’t any good resources for learning finger drumming. I found a couple of YouTube tutorials and learned how to play very rudimentary hip-hop beats, but it was hard to progress any further. Then in late 2015, the Ableton newsletter landed in my inbox, and it had an announcement about Melodics. I signed up immediately!
How did using Melodics change things for you? Melodics was a game changer for me. After a couple of weeks of daily practice, I was able to play the ‘Amen Brother’ breakbeat. I was so excited. As a crate digger who loves all the classic breaks, it was satisfying and motivating to learn that drum pattern. I just kept going from there, unlocking as many levels as I could. Last year, I made it to Level 18, but I’m stuck there because I’ve been working on other things. I wouldn’t have advanced to my current skill level without Melodics, so it’s still so crazy to me that my ‘Keep It Real’ lessons are available in the Melodics app. I also think that finger drumming made me a better producer, which is why I said the skills evolved simultaneously. With practice, my drum vocabulary expanded, and eventually, my patterns became more complex and interesting.
Before this interview, you told me that you view the turntable as a controller and as a tool in your production arsenal. Could you expand on your thinking here? The traditional view of a turntable is that it’s a record player. You don’t create anything with it; you use it to play someone else’s music. But for the turntablist, the turntable has always been an instrument. Here’s what I mean: With scratching, essentially you’re isolating and manipulating certain sounds. Most people associate scratching with vocals, but turntablists can scratch any musical material – drums, horns, strings, pads, chords, you name it. You can even use the turntable’s pitch control to transpose a sound while you’re scratching it. What other piece of hardware lets you isolate, manipulate, and transpose audio content? A sampler. That’s why I think of the turntable as a controller or instrument. It’s just another way to work with audio in a music production environment. For me, the real benefit of using a turntable is that it adds a unique element to my live performances, and it lets me combine my love of beat-making with my love of scratching.
When he was growing up in Tours, France, French-English hip-hop/electronic beatmaker, producer and finger drummer extraordinaire Beat Matazz dreamed of, much like his heroes AIR, being surrounded by analog synthesisers, sequencers, and drum machines. With time, as he fell in love with the music of Flying Lotus, Samiyam, Prefuse 73, James Blake, Hiatus Kaiyote, and Amon Tobin, caught their vibes, and began to build his own collection of customised studio gear and software. Electronic music production led him towards his current area of expertise: finger drumming.
Beat Matazz has been presenting his furiously funky finger drumming routines to live audiences since 2015, but earlier this year, he took things to a new level when he ousted all challengers to win the Sample Music Festival 2018 Finger Drumming Competition in Berlin with a ridiculous routine. Since then, he’s been building relationships with Herrmutt Lobby’s Playground App, Akai, and us here at Melodics. With an upcoming Melodics lesson based on his winning performance in the works, we spoke with him about finger drumming and his time at the competition. Check out his winning performance here (scroll to 2:33)
Could you talk a bit about your musical experiences before you started finger drumming? I started out at age six as a classical percussionist, xylophone, marimba, and timbales. When I was a teenager, my teacher agreed to teach me drums as I wasn’t to keen on classical music. These experiences gave me the rhythmic skills to drum in many bands for many genres. I played pop, hip-hop, electro-funk, experimental, world music and even in a marching band.
How did you end up adding finger drumming to your skill set?
In parallel with drumming, I started using music software like Reason and Ableton to make music for fun. After years of composing, I became frustrated and bought my first Akai MPC500 [sampling workstation] off Leboncoin (the French version of Craiglist). Hardware-based beatmaking made sense to me, and a gigantic world opened up. It allowed me to link the unlimited creative paths afforded by software to a tactile instrument. I remember sampling George Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ and thinking, “Oh my god this sounds like a perfect hip-hop instrumental!” At the time, I was attending an art school in Nantes. I was very focused on sound art and music. They kicked me out, which gave me the perfect opportunity to fully devote myself to music.
You discovered finger drumming by using the Akai MPC500. What was it about the process that inspired you to devote so much time to developing your skill-level?
I love the portability of pad controllers and the musical genres that rely on them. The research process you go through to create these very personal textures and sounds are very important to me. You can tune samples far more than you can tune a real snare drum. I can also put more of myself into the rhythms of the music by playing them. I love the trance state I enter when I’m in my home studio. Thanks to my previous drumming experience, and having created tracks with software, I already had the core skill sets. I just needed to combine them. I tweaked my finger positioning and started to work and play hard.
What sort of approach did you take when you started practicing your finger drumming?
I didn’t know what I was doing when I started. I’m very spontaneous when I create and have no habits. My approach is always the pursuit of pleasure, and feeling the desire to create. Since I started playing and making music, that hasn’t changed. My first sample mine was old vinyl I found in flea markets. Even the most shitty records sometimes have two chords that make my day. Fat basses are what I need to feel, so I got an old analog synth: the Korg MS-10 (plugged into the Korg SQ-10 sequencer). The people who designed that marvelous device where thirty years ahead of their time. It’s become a spine to my beats.
How did you transition into taking part in events like the SMF 2018 Finger Drumming Competition?
After spending years developing my techniques, I knew I had to make the world know what I’ve worked for. Last year, I won a battle in Paris at the Bataclan, a legendary 90s hip-hop venue. Being acknowledged by the hip-hop network changed how I looked at myself and my music. It also made me be more specific in my thinking around who would be hearing my music. Battle audiences know exactly why they’re at the end. Battling is so raw; you find out what the crowd thinks of you instantaneously.
What were your thoughts on the SMF 2018 Finger Drumming Competition in Berlin?
The skill level was very high in Berlin. The team was so nice and devoted, and so were the participants. When I was there, I understood that I had found my place. Geeks were able to scratch and jam for hours, with or without spectators. It was a space where musicians were speaking a common language, all with the feel of a real community, and the codes and sounds that quote the subculture. It was real and vibrant, and it felt so good to be part of that experience. The experience was great. We need to gather together and feel those vibes more often.
Stay tuned for a new Melodics lesson from Beats Matazz. Find out more about him here on YouTube or Facebook.
Whether you’re talking about theatrical live performance, EDM studio sessions, film and television soundtrack/sound design work, musical education programs, or her Akylla duo project with Saratonin, Sherry St. Germain is an accomplished and assured achiever. Based in Las Vegas, Nevada, she’s a classically trained multi-instrumentalist, producer, and singer/songwriter who has – among other accomplishments – collaborated with Steve Aoki, Excision, Stafford Bros, Revolvr, and Genesis, performed on a flying piano for Cirque Du Soleil, and written music for male stripper comedy Magic Mike.
In conversation with Melodics, Sherry expands on her thoughts around the power of daily practice, improvisation, musical simplicity, and taking the time to share what you’ve learned with others.
You can also play the Sherry St. Germain and Akylla Melodics lessons by following the links below.
How much time do you spend playing music? If I’m not playing, I’m producing, or teaching, or performing, so I’m kind of always in a music mode. I’m the type of person who leaves the studio and then goes home to the studio. I was raised in music. There are a lot of people that I teach on the side; I don’t even charge them, I teach them cause it helps me. I had a lot of teachers, who helped me on the side. When you teach something, you become a master at it. That’s the last stage, like in martial arts. I think that whole statement “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” is bullshit. When you do teach you explain things, you break them down in layman’s terms, which is a different type of thinking. When I teach something, I learn as well, which is really really nice.
What would you suggest to someone who wants to make music part of their daily life?
Start out playing for five minutes a day. If you can do five minutes a day then eventually five will turn into ten mins, and ten mins will turn into fifteen minutes. You can use it as a way to learn and share. Often, I’ll decode a song and its chord changes, because I want to learn it. Afterward, I’ll show it to my friends, and I’ll try to perform alchemy with it. The majority of the people I work with on production in the DJ world, don’t know a lot of theory, so they will ask me if things are in key, and I’ll advise them on works and doesn’t. Sometimes just making sense of a song musically is a good way to practice and stay inspired. When I’m doing production work for Film and TV, they send me songs to learn, but they don’t want you to rip them off, they want you to make something with the same energy. You have to think about what makes a song appealing by dissecting it. This has been really good practice for me as well, learning which chord changes resonate with people. That’s been a good way to practice as well.
Any other tips?
Sometimes I practice by playing along to mixes online. I’ll pick a different mix, chill hip-hop, house music, whatever, and play along. That way, every day you are gonna be stimulated with something new. When you learn something new every day, you get happier. Happiness releases endorphins which you associate with learning, and you want to do it more. Why I like playing along to mixes is it’s a way to find cool things you can learn. If you love house music, practice to house music, if you love trap music, practice to trap music. Do the things you love, and you will only get better.
How important is improvisation to what you do? I’m doing it all the time. I think every day is kind of an improvisation. You always end up having to wing it. I prepare as much as I can, but a lot of it is improvised, which stems from being excited when you hear stuff. Something inspires me, I want to do something like it, and you end up off in a completely different direction. Music makes you use both sides of your brain.
Speaking of using both sides of your brain, what’s your take on finger drumming? I think it’s dope. I love finger drumming. It’s so good for technique cause it helps with piano. It helps with everything. It’s so great for hand-eye coordination, and it makes you better at rhythm in general. I think finger drumming and piano go hand in hand. Melodics has finger drums, keys, and v-drums, and all of those are going to help you in whatever you do. They all rely on elements of rhythm, and keys even though they aren’t rhythm, they have a rhythmic sense to them.
When you’re in a band, even if you’re the best drummer in the world and you do all the fanciest shit, nine times out of ten no one will want to play with you. They want someone who can groove and keep time. People don’t even care about the fancy stuff half the time; they just want the meat and potatoes. John Bonham [from Led Zeppelin] wasn’t a crazy drummer as far as soloing goes, but when you listen to his groove, it’s everything. You can’t help but move to it.
Being told to practice your scales can seem like the dentist telling you to floss… We think there’s a better way.
Introducing exercises for Melodics, repeatable drills that focus on developing muscle memory and orientation to musical patterns such as modes, scales and intervals. Exercises are a zen-like contrast to our error focussed and feedback driven lesson experience. One that instead rewards patience, taking your time and repetition.
You can’t fail!
Exercises are rep based, and help you to focus on what’s right – not what you’re getting wrong. There’s no scoring and zero focus on errors. It’s all about positive reinforcement through rep based practice.
Play at your own pace with full control over the tempo and speed of your practice. Start it slow to learn the correct fingering and get comfortable. Then speed it up to see how fast you can play. Just hit those reps!
Built into courses
Exercises are built into courses, and develop your muscle memory and familiarity with scales, modes and intervals used in the lessons you’ll be trying to pass. Discover the underlying musical concepts of songs and lessons through playable exercises.
The idea is to keep practicing the exercise until you feel confident and ready for the next lesson in the course. The best way to get past those progress plateaus!
Learn the theory behind what you’re playing
Exercises also relate to the wider world of written music. You may notice that the design hints at the bass and treble clef of piano sheet music. This is designed to sub-consciously develop your spatial recognition of key interval structures and make it easier for you to transfer your learning between different contexts.
Full control over the tempo and speed. You can play at your own pace with no accompaniment, the metronome or a choice of different backing drum tracks.
Orientation with no rush. Get the fingering right and get comfortable.
Exercises dig deeper into the wider world of music education through a recognisable piano sheet music like display.
Rep based, not error focussed. See how many reps you’ve done, and how many you need to do to move on to your next lesson.
You might want to set aside more practice time this week. We’ve made some improvements to courses, and there’s loads of fresh material to fuel your next session. From courses on learning ornamentation and arpeggios for keyboard, to new drums courses on sub-divisions and finding the funk – there’s plenty to dig into!
We’ve updated the learning screen in Melodics, and you’ll now see that courses look a little different. We’ve had plenty of feedback since we’ve released Melodics and we know that these updates will make your practice sessions much smoother.
Check out these new courses you might have missed
Building Arpeggios – In today’s musical landscape, it’s pretty hard to listen to anything without coming across arpeggios. Whether you’re into funk, classical music, or witch house, arpeggios serve as a key part of arranging, producing, and composing. Arpeggios are a crucial technique for arranging, producing, and composing. But what are they exactly, and how can you play them?
Ornaments – In performing, ornamentation can help you add detail, expression, and new layers of creativity to your melodic structures. In this course, we’ll be taking a look at ornaments, and not the kind you see around the holidays! We’ll practice adding ornamentation so that you’ll feel comfortable trying it out in your own music!
Subdivisons by Push4Life – Push4Life presents ‘Subdivisions’, a series of lessons that focus on performing changes in subdivisions from 8th notes right through to 16th note triplets. Explore how changes in subdivision can create dramatic, engaging arrangements.
Ain’t it Funky – Expand on a basic Funk beat with a series of variations in the style of Clyde Stubblefield. The variations will focus on kick, snare, open hi-hat placements and tom fills. Structure what you’ve learned into a song format to complete the course.
And if you’re interested to know what’s on the release radar. Here’s a sneak peak at some forthcoming courses!
Music Theory – Explore and demystify some of the fundamental concepts and terminology of music theory through play.
Hand Independence – Develop your ability to perform with both hands at the same time through these simple exercises and challenging lessons.
Extending Arpeggios – Develop your performance and understanding of arpeggios across a further range of musical styles.
Ultimate Arpeggios – Challenge yourself with this collection of more advanced arpeggio lessons.
Cinematic Chords – Chords can help shape emotion and feelings for an audience. Learn how to perform basic chord structures that achieve this in film scores.
On the Go – Why wait to create? Explore how you can perform music with extreme limitations. These lessons are all playable with just your computer keyboard.
Based in Las Vegas, Nevada, Sherry St Germain is a classically trained multi-instrumentalist, producer, and singer/songwriter. Over the last fifteen years, Sherry has applied her diverse skill sets and energy to high profile film and television soundtrack work, theatrical live performances, studio sessions, and her Akylla duo project with Saratonin.
Most recently, Sherry has been involved in production work and collaborations with a who’s who of EDM and dance music talents including Steve Aoki, Excision, Stafford Bros, Revolvr, and Genesis. From playing a flying piano with Cirque Du Soleil to writing music for male stripper comedy Magic Mike, and beyond, she’s never short of a story or ten.
In this Q&A, Sherry discusses how she got started playing music, entering the EDM scene, and how the mechanics of music keep her inspired and interested.
Play lessons by Sherry St Germain and Akylla by following the links below to open the Melodics app:
How long have you been working in the EDM scene for? Since around 2015. Before that, I did Film and TV soundtrack work for twelve years; twenty-four-hour turnaround jobs. I worked on Magic Mike, Something Borrowed, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Knight Rider, Nashville, all those shows. I would do whatever they asked me to do because I wanted to learn. After twelve years of that, I started ghost producing for some popular EDM artists. I was writing for people who were making a lot of money in the EDM world, and I thought “Hey, I could do that too!” I switched over, and my first break was with Steve Aoki. I’m new to the scene, but I have been making electronic music for fifteen, maybe seventeen years. I love the unity vibes in electronic music. We share sound packs and plugins between producers, and it’s very nurturing. People want you to grow and will show you what they’ve learned. If you do that with your friends, you all get a lot further. There is more power in numbers. Could you tell us a bit about how you got your start playing music? Basically, my mother was a classical piano teacher, and my dad was a singer. Growing up from two years old, I had to practice classical piano every day, for four hours a day, until I was 14. We grew up on the road with my dad on a tour bus. We were surrounded by jazz musicians. We were just surrounded by music my entire life. I didn’t really have a choice but to get into music. When I was 14, I stopped playing for a while. I’d been forced to practice every day, so I really started to hate playing. I would run away from home, and they’d call the cops to look for me, all because I didn’t want to practice [laughs]. Imagine if Melodics had been around. This is why Melodics is so dope. When I was a kid, I had to practice playing baroque piano pieces, which I didn’t want to play. If I’d been able to practice songs I liked, it might have been a different story. In hindsight, classical music is really really good. It’s encoded with sacred geometry, and the mathematical makeup of the universe, so it’s good to learn that stuff. What I would have liked, would have been if it had beats or something I could move to. I needed a groove. I do a lot of music teaching work with teenage girls. I’ll take their iPods, see what they are listening to, decode it, and help them learn what they want to learn. Unless you’re learning something you love, you’re not going to want to learn it. How did you go from stopping to playing again? I started to party in the rave scene and was really inspired. From there it flipped very quickly to wanting to practice piano over dance music. I would take napkins and write down the music theory of songs I liked; then go home and try to recreate them. I was infatuated with the sounds I was hearing, but I didn’t want to practice traditional music, so I started practicing to house, dance, and electronic music. Could you expand on your ideas about learning something you love into some advice for people starting out with their playing? Find songs you love and learn them. They’re the ones that will inspire you. I learn the chord structure of songs, and I start to reverse engineer them. Then, I’ll make a completely different track that was inspired by one of them. When you study songs, you start to reverse engineer by default. You start to learn chord changes, patterns, and rhythms that you can incorporate into your own music. Eventually, you’ll just have this toolbox of turnarounds, changes, and rhythms you can mix and match into anything. Anything you are learning becomes part of your vocabulary. Music is a vocabulary, and you’re learning all these little phrases. You’ll have this toolkit of all the phrases you’ve learned you can pull out at any moment.
Brian Hazard, better known as Color Theory, is an American singer, songwriter, keyboardist and electronic music producer from Huntington Beach in California. His personal career highlights include winning a grand prize and Lennon Award in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, recording three songs for the Ubisoft Just Dance series, and having songs featured on MTV’s The Real World. Over the last twenty-five years, Brian has crafted his own singular visions of what synth-pop and synthwave music could be. Across nine albums, as many EPs, and countless singles, Brian has imagined and evolved a soundworld where the gloriously colourful synth flourishes, uptempo drum machine funk, and expressive sentimentalism of the early eighties never went out of fashion. Far from retro or throwback, his is the work of a longstanding believer and lover who continued to groove under the light reflected off a pixelated 8-bit disco ball. As he puts it, “Somehow I never outgrew the 80s.” In stolen moments between studio sessions and family time, we caught up with Brian to find about how he approaches playing and producing music.
You can also play the Color Theory Melodics lessons for Pads, Keys and Drums by following the links below:
Color Theory – In Motion (Drums) Who are your musical inspirations, and why? Historically, Depeche Mode is my biggest influence. I love how they create a unique sonic universe in every song. I grew up on Depeche Mode, The Cure, and The Smiths. Later on, I fell hard for David Sylvian and Japan, which brought more of a literary aspect to my music. Over the past few years, I’m less influenced by particular artists or bands, and more by arrangement or production ideas I spot in the wild. Maybe it’s the opening theme from an anime or something in a commercial. I think that’s because I, like most people, don’t listen to music the same way. Spotify changed all that, probably for the worse, but it is what it is. Finger drumming and keys are great starting points for people learning about music. How do you see them as fitting into a music maker or producers skill set? It doesn’t get more fundamental than rhythm and melody! Breaking down a song into its core elements is a great way to learn how music is constructed, and drums/bass/melody is generally enough to stand in for the entire arrangement. The piano provides the best visual model to understand high versus low notes, and eventually to learn scales and chords. What’s your background with piano/keys and drums/pads? I started out on the piano in middle school, played in the drumline in high school, and ended up with a degree in piano performance. While I have formal training in both keys and drums, and even have a little experience playing drum set (well, a lot if you count Rock Band), I confess my drum parts are a weak link in my production! Back in college, I was really taken in by virtuosity. I aspired to learn all the Chopin Etudes, and I regularly listened to Chick Corea, Joe Satriani, and other technical masters. But at some point, I decided that showmanship was nonsense. Perhaps I’ve been overcompensating with overly simplistic arrangements ever since. If you could start out again with keys and production, what areas would you initially focus on to develop your chops from? I was exposed to a lot of hocus-pocus pseudoscientific, technical concepts that took years to dispel. Setting aside the pedals, the only aspect of sound production we have under our control at the piano is the speed of key descent. The hammer is thrown at the strings, and from that point on, we have zero influence on the resulting sound. Knowing that you don’t have to waste your time worrying about unnecessary wrist movement, “finger vibrato,” and other nonsense. So at the piano, I’d focus on making sure every finger is touching the key before it’s pressed. I used to call that “playing from the key” but that sounds rather obvious. There’s probably a better term. With production, again there’s so much nonsense out there. Learn how to EQ and compress. That’s 90% of the battle. Multiband compression, spacial imaging, harmonic synthesis, M/S encoding, and other “advanced” techniques are generally not essential, and can easily become a distraction. Is there anything else central about playing and production you wish you could go back in time and tell your younger self? My biggest mistake was thinking I had to figure out everything myself. I should’ve interned at a local studio or hired others to mix my music until I learned the ropes. Instead, it was all trial and error. I could’ve really used a mentor. Keep in mind this was before you could find a dozen tutorials on every aspect of music production on YouTube. But the concept still applies. It’s better to spend a little money and learn from the best than to waste time going down dead ends.
Without a doubt, music gives back what you put into it. There is no substitute for time spent ‘shedding’ on your instrument. There is no shortcut to either technical proficiency or (more importantly), conviction and ‘a voice’ in your playing. It is a humbling and never-ending journey.
Practice is cumulative, and muscle memory is built through repetition over time. For this reason, I often tell beginner musicians that 5 minutes a day will be much more beneficial than two hours once a week. As your playing and understanding grow, your practice sessions may demand more time, or become more conceptual than mechanical. You might also find that the breakthroughs happen after an hour or so of banging your head against the wall. But this is down the track. For now, regular time on the instrument (or program as our modern landscape may have it), and building the habit of practice are what will get you the best results.
Everyone learns differently. One aspect of effectively practicing and internalising pieces of music, musical techniques, and musical vocabulary is developing an understanding of how you learn.
These concepts quickly become quite cerebral, so in the spirit of this piece (as I’ll soon explain), let’s focus on something immediately tangible.
How do you learn a passage of music you find technically difficult?
If I had a one-word answer, it might be ‘microscopically’.
The process explained below for guitar is used in all Melodics lessons. The pieces are deconstructed into steps, so you can gradually rebuild from the foundational elements up to the full parts. Remember, if anything feels too hard at any stage, repeat it, slow it down (use the tools in Practice Mode), and zoom in.
Let’s use Link Wray’s seminal tune ‘Rumble’ as an example (which a fledgling guitar player may find some aspects of challenging):
The first 8 bars of this 12 bar blues are pretty easy. To me (and for simplicity’s sake), the tune is a slow blues shuffle in 4/4. I think the sheet music has it as 12/8. You strum a Dsus2 on beats 3 and 4 before the downbeat, then strum an E ‘on the one’ and let it ring for a bar and a half. Then repeat. Then do the same thing but go to an A. Then the same returning to the E. Provided you know these chords, this will take about ten seconds to learn. If this is confusing at all, have a listen to the link and it will become clear.
In bars 9-12, there’s a B7 chord which is likely less familiar than the first 3, followed by a 2/4 bar (which feels natural enough it won’t catch you off guard), followed by a descending E minor pentatonic scale using the open strings. Again, use the recording for reference.
Most people starting out on guitar don’t find playing chords especially difficult, but changing between them in time is another story. My fairly amateur keys playing can attest to this being a cross-instrumental issue. Even if it seems counterintuitive now, most people will play a song from the start and trainwreck it at the same place over and over. And wonder why that part always goes wrong.
Let’s assume the first 8 bars of this song have become pretty solid after a bit of practice. But when you practice, you are you still playing the song from the beginning every time and falling off the rails in the same place every time. In this case, Bar 9. Surely it would make sense to isolate the challenging aspect, and focus your energy there if that is what is causing you problems? Here’s where we can start zooming in.
First things first, you need to get the B7 chord sounding good on its own. Zooming in further, I would make sure the left-hand fingers are in the correct position, then play the notes of this chord (arpeggiate it) one at a time with my right hand. If any of them are choked or aren’t speaking properly, something in the left-hand needs to adjust. Until they all sound cleanly, things can’t progress. Maybe working on just the B7 is the practice on this tune for today.
Once that chord is under control, the change to it from Dsus is next. I would zoom out slightly and focus on just looping the D to the B7 back and forth. First without time just to get the muscle memory happening, and then in the correct rhythm for the song. You can make these exercises musical. I would set a metronome to a similar tempo as the tune (or initially slower if necessary), and make a 2 bar loop. Part of the reason I chose this song as an example is that it is slow and simple. On something more uptempo or complex, I would always start practicing with a metronome well below the true tempo.
Once this feels good, zoom out again. Now might be a good time to play the tune from the start to bar 10, and put your new part in context.
Finally, we have our minor pentatonic run. Like many parts, this sounds cool so difficulty is assumed. It’s actually very simple. However, it will almost certainly trip you up if it isn’t looked at in isolation first. Zoom back in. Use the same process. Play just the descending E- pentatonic scale a few times. Do it in halves if you need to. Then introduce time. You can either keep the metronome in 4/4 and play them as a triplet feel, or move the metronome over to divisions of 3. Either way, start slow! I can’t emphasize enough that the slower and smaller you make parts, the easier they get, and the more solid your understanding and foundation of that music will be. With that in mind, maybe just getting that run under your fingers so it sounds badass and confident is today’s practice. Maybe you work on it just for 5 minutes.
Assuming this lick is sounding good, zoom out a bit. Using the same process, put the last 4 bars together. Once that feels good, include the Dsus2 chords which lead into bar 9. Once this is all grooving and locked in, I think you’re ready to play the whole tune and rock it.
From personal experience of learning to play things way beyond my skill level, I believe anyone can learn to play anything if they have the patience to break the pieces down into tangible amounts. Even the most intricate music can be attainable by zooming in and working on a few notes or a chord change at a time. It’s the patience to do so, and the focus involved which is the true skill.
Abraham Kunin is a producer, songwriter, session guitarist, and recording engineer. He has toured internationally with a wide spectrum of bands, theatrical productions, and festival stages. abrahamkunin.com