Thursday, July 9, 2015

Heard and Not Seen

Heard and Not Seen
© 2015 by Gary Lee Joyner

What kind of guitar do I like?
Do you mean a certain brand or style?
Or one particular fetish object?


A guitar needs to stay out of my way
A guitar must not get in my way
As soon as I notice it I don’t like it
I like to make love in the dark
The touch that isn’t there
The touch that’s so elemental
It may not even be there


Here’s the truth
Here’s the deal
This is how it is
It may not have the romance you’re looking for
But listen


I’ve been married to guitars for 48 years
No divorce in sight

Three things become clear over that length of time
1.     You now look like each other. (Check out Segovia at 90)
2.     It’s hard to be in the same room together for any length of time (ignoring each other helps)
3.     You accept that you are stuck with each other for the duration

OK, four things
4.     Don’t you touch her without asking
I’m standing right here for god sakes

Listen again

As we both know
If she ever did leave
I would sit every night at an open window
With a cold-burning candle
Ready to guide her back home

Complicated, isn't it?

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Not Your Father's Guitar Capo

© 2015 by Gary Lee Joyner

A former participant in my guitar classes at Blue Bear School of Music, San Francisco, who is now a geographically distant friend recently asked my impression of guitar capos. Here's his question followed by my response. By the way, his name is also Gary.

Gary, What are your thoughts on capos? Playing guitars with a friend, he was of the view that with acoustic guitars, we should play in first position. I occasionally capo for singing.

Hey Gary

My first thought is how good you are at bringing up interesting topics.

I love thinking about capos. I have led lots of workshops about capoing, often under the title “This Isn’t Your Father’s Capo”.

And I like bringing different ideas together…to expand ways of thinking.

For example, in a tangential way one might compare capos to the movable frets of a sitar. Similarities, differences, parallels? Fun to think about.

Or…since capos are in fact simply clamps they might be compared to clamps in a workshop…or in surgery. Holding something together…keeping something at bay…musical sound as glue or blood flow…

Or…more directly…capo usage can be compared to a transposing instrument. One can play and think in C while actually sounding in Eb by capoing at III. This tidy benefit led to guitarists being seen as poor musicians when they had trouble communicating with other musicians. A pianist isn’t impressed when you say “I don’t know, I’m playing in C” when he/she is hearing Eb.

These days I encourage people to think in terms of the key they are actually sounding with a capo in the mix…rather than the forms they are playing. It’s really not that hard. A thorough, accurate understanding of the CAGED concept is all it takes. Sadly, talk about CAGED tends to be ill-informed, not thought through, or polluted by fear and/or arrogance. For starters, calling CAGED a “system” leads to confusion.

The term “system” can be conceived in a couple of significantly different ways. I suspect that people hear “CAGED system” and misunderstand it to be a proscribed methodical approach to something, similar to the “Stanislavski System” of acting or “the 12-tone compositional system”. It may be less confusing and even useful if one compares the CAGED “system” to a plumbing system, a matrix. An understanding of an inevitable structure can help one function. But you don’t need to know about it to turn on the faucet. Musical sound as water...

But I digress. Picking up where I left off about capos…

A curious thing is that sitar playing or building a birdhouse in a woodshop or vascular surgery or Eb alto saxophones don’t arouse the dogmatism, argumentation, arrogance, or misconceptions that the proposition of capos arouses.

Here’s the deal. If you never use open strings when you are playing guitar a capo won’t be of any use to you. Actually, that’s not even true. Let’s say it won’t be of musical use to you. There can be physical applications. For example, if you are training yourself to play something with wide stretches in the fretting hand it can be helpful to capo at V or so and slowly work down over time as you become more limber. Another example of a purely physical application—a capo can make the action feel “lower”…that is, the rise of the string above the fingerboard is higher off the nut than it is over a fret. In another way, a purely sound-related application can be demonstrated by playing “Here Comes the Sun” in the key of D without a capo and then playing it with the same chord forms, but capoed at VII (which means you are actually sounding in the key of A). The sonic/timbral difference is immediately clear. You were playing on a “big” guitar with long strings. Now you’re playing on a “little” guitar with much shorter strings.

But strictly speaking, if you don’t utilize open strings a capo won’t be of any direct musical use. And that musical use is essentially transposition. Jazz guitarists don’t seem to gravitate toward capos. It’s not because they are more highly evolved human beings. They just don’t tend to use open strings. Using a capo with awareness of true keys and musical effects is very sophisticated in itself. A grounding in transposition is a great place to start.

(Ironically, Peter Einhorn, a jazz guitarist, has developed one of the most brilliant partial capos on the market. See next paragraph.)

Here’s a related topic that has excited me for a bunch of years now—partial capoing. This has to do with capoing only selected strings, often at different frets using multiple capos. (The sitar analogy becomes even more apt.) This can be approached simply or deeply. There are a number of partial capos on the market that offer a place to begin. I customized a couple dozen different variations for myself before Peter Einhorn created his universally applicable Spider Capo. Shubb Capos are particularly amenable to the alterations I experimented with on my own. I still use a bunch of them.

Depending on your guitar neck, it might work to begin by simply flipping a standard Kyser capo over to simulate both Esus and A partial capos. The piece that was on the back of the neck is now on the front. Or you can simulate Drop D tuning by clamping your Kyser from below and leaving string 6 open.

Confusion has entered the scene because partial capo manufacturers advertise partial capos as quick ways to altered tunings. This is wildly inaccurate. Standard tuning, altered tunings, and partial capoing are three separate and distinct approaches. Each one is a completely different entity—evidenced by people like David Wilcox, and myself, who have combined altered tunings with partial capoing to create yet another playing environment. But the beauty of basic partial capo usage, i.e. a partial capo used with standard tuning, is that you still have all your familiar chord forms while the “open” strings offer wonderful new combinations of sound that can be surprisingly and happily disorienting.

(There are many topics touched on above that need meta-hyperlinks because they each open entire new cans of worms. Pomo guitar ruminations. No time now.)

A final thought. The idea “he was of the view that with acoustic guitars, we should play in first position” really has me scratching my head. I operate with the idea that “shoulds” and rules don’t serve art/creativity…preferring to think in terms of what is useful in pursuit of a desired result. Any rule is useful only for achieving and/or avoiding what the rule is about. If you want the opposite effect the rule needs to be reversed. The “rule” your friend mentioned strikes me as particularly ill-considered and self-limiting. Acoustic guitars sound wonderful in first position, but a lot of fine music wouldn’t be achieved if we limited ourselves to that area. Maybe there was an implied intent that I’m missing…

A final-final thought. I once heard a drummer interviewed about working with saxophonist Wayne Shorter. They were dealing with some predictably difficult music, and she was having a hard time with it. Really freezing up. Starting to cry. She said that Shorter stopped everything, took her to another room, and gently said, “Relax. It’s only music.”