Talking Guitar: Part 2

Screenshot text: I want to hear you talk guitar. I want to hear how you get your sounds, how you produce and mix, your favorite gear. how you compose. all of it. your music is killer good. 


How I compose

Compared to part one, this is going to be much more haphazard.  I think I need to separate out composing and improvising.  That itself might be odd as improvisation is a form of spontaneous composition, but for ease of talking about it let’s call them different things.


I don’t really compose ambient works.  I do compose and write songs more like on Connector and other older works now lost.  Compositionally I do what a lot of people do, noodle around until I find something I like then play around with it.  I will draw on theory to develop ideas, shift keys, write contrasting sections and add or change harmony.

I found that hard to focus on.  I can do it but I don’t find it fun.  I do like to read or listen to people who are really good at that to get a better understanding (as in, steal ideas).  So Steve Vai, Hans Zimmer and Bear McCreary all crop up often in my podcasts or documentary list.

More often than not, I’ll be trying different chords and progressions to see if I stumble on something I like.  Or noodle out a riff that I can then write the chords to go with.  So experimenting combined with theoretical understanding and spending time letting the ideas develop and change to see where they go. I don’t often record these, I might write a few pointers down but these are things I want to let come back to me rather than force.

It takes me a long time to compose because I switch from creating to editing quite slowly – different functions for me.  So I would say for me composing happens after or on top of improvising as I edit the thought behind the creation.

For example, On Open Water started out of an improvisation idea, but instead of leaving it improvised I began thinking things like; if I change this part to a linear picked chord, make this change more minor or suspended it becomes a bit more like a lonely sea tune.  Then I can add a melody line that will emphasise that feeling, particularly if it has a sort of sweet distorted element and pitch up here and there.  Then I go back and improvise around that for a while before again engaging some critical thinking.

Spontaneous composing or improvising

This took me a long time to come to terms with how I felt about it.  Most guitarists noodle – it’s fun and I do it a lot.  But I had to work out how I could not just record me noodling.  What I do love is improvised comedy, and of course there are lots of methods or games to enable improvisation in comedy and music. So I effectively gave myself three rules to play by:

  1. Most importantly: I have to be there
  2. Preparation is part of the game – separate practice and performance
  3. Stick to the rules of the game until it contradicts rule #1

Being there

This is something that guitarists either overemphasise, or avoid talking about.  It is a spiritual element to some, nonsense to others. To not be mystical and very matter of fact, it means that you don’t play on autopilot, you have to be playing with intent and meaning. That can involve playing things that you already know, but you need a reason to be doing it.  You need to listen to yourself and how you feel at any moment so you are truly expressing.  When I have my act together this becomes automatic and transcendent.  I am there, but that I is the bigger, plugged in me. Let’s move on before it gets bogged down.  More useful rules are next…

Prepare the game

This is where the bulk of the work comes from, and it has to be separate from but enabled by practicing.  Before I start playing, sometimes well in advance (I keep a notebook to put ideas down when they come so I have a supply), I set out an area I want to explore.  You could think of these as starting conditions for processing music.  They fall into some broad types of game:

Scalar Drone

So if I’m making a drone based piece, I will pick a scale first.  I might have stumbled across one reading, or had a little search on the internet around scales and mood associations.  Then I’ll set an empty loop up and introduce a note from that scale.  Often the root, but not always.  Then I’ll add layers of that note (say a harmonic tap or an ebow) or the root note.  Let that moment simmer and build as I listen back to it, then start to play in response – if that’s the anchor, how do I feel about it?  Do I want it to go slower or faster? Am I tense or relaxed? Play that mood in response.  Listen again. Repeat.

So far this one I’m definitely not beginning with any thought of melody or harmony in mind, just (for example) “play D major”.  This has a lot in common with the approach of Perry Frank (who has a slightly different take in the same direction)

Texture Driven or Prepared Guitar

I don’t often do actual prepared guitar in the ‘traditional’ sense very often, but I will if I’m in the mood.  But I do prepare fx beforehand in a similar way.  Here you set up the machines in odd ways and see what happens.  So the rules of the game might be not putting any fx in the traditional order.  That will give you a sound to loop. Now you have choices about reacting (authentically of course) to that sound – does it have a tonality that you want to emphasise, or a rhythm to play with or against?  If you are using distortion, there will be some intervals that sound more dissonant than others so you can react to the increasing and decreasing tension in the sonic texture – it’s giving you clues about harmony to play with. I think of this as quite a Robert Fripp or David Torn approach (which have similarities but end up in very different areas)

Given a progression

Bill Vencil (Chords of Orion) suggested using melodies from traditional songs as a base.  To me that’s a bit like getting the audience to give you a first line to kick things off.  Sometimes I either think up a starting point myself through or during practice (I did wake up with one once), so a bit of melody to kick things off which you will want to come back to, extend, reverse or generally play around with.  Then you will be able to loop that and harmonise with chords or other lines around it, or don’t loop but move to the chords and loop them before bringing the lead melody back.  To me that takes the most memory and presence.  It is glorious when it happens completely spontaneously – it means I’ve put the practice in to get there!  I’ve also used old songs for this (in season 3 each episode starts that way), but simply in the sense of reading the chords, not listening to the actual songs or paying attention to anything else – just the chords as input that I have to create a melody over. 

That probably came to me as an idea because of Super Ego – Forgotten Classics, where they take the cast of characters from a book and the first line as the input to an improvised session.

But also…

These games and rules can come from anywhere.  Mix these 3 types together gives you a few different combinations.  Or you could pick a particular interval to explore, or a technique you want to understand better by using it.  Guitar magazines are useful to get ideas from other people.  I'm still using one suggestion from Vernon Reid in a magazine which was to get a copy of Mick Goodrick's The Advancing Guitarist. Between that and looking in non-guitar areas (like me trying to copy Yo-Yo Ma and Louis Armstrong) I can keep coming up with things to try, and games to play - because it should be play I think, not work (in the regular sense at least, there are still aspects of professionalism, but I think it needs that experimentation, and enjoyment/pleasure).

Sticking to the rules

The games, you set the rules as a starting point. But I’m aiming at losing myself somewhere along the way.  It doesn’t always happen, but the preparation in setting the rules, and in practicing scales and techniques, learning enough theory to understand possibilities, and training to hear the music and react to what you hear, hopefully at some point that becomes autonomous and frees you up to listen more to the spontaneous creation happening because of you.

If you get to that point, and are present enough to recognise it, then you can start ignoring the game and the rules and just go with the music.  I think that’s the moment that I chase, that drives me, that I seek in any musical situation.

In conclusion

I think that’s my compositional method.  To answer your actual question more simply (but less usefully?), when I sit down to write something ambient, I’m trying not to think.  I’m trying to feel and express spontaneous with all the preparation I can have around knowing how to put harmony, melody, texture into that expression. I rarely sit down to do it by the way!

On the other hand, when I sit down to write less ambient music, I noodle first and use harmony and melody as an editor as I very slowly evolve something that I like.  

I suppose the first is mechanics leading to inspiration, the second is inspiration leading to mechanics…

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