I will be updating the blog on an irregular basis with some choice material from revolutionary musicians, artists, and thinkers as a precursor to our April concert series at The Speakeasy, which I’m going to call “Speakeasy/Playloud” unless someone can think of something which we like better. Hopefully it will provide some entertainment, expose you to something new, and give you a little something to think about. Themes I will focus on tonight include the universal musicality of humans and how to create music.
In his 2006 publication, This Is Your Brain On Music, Daniel J. Leviten combines music with neurology to describe how human brains interpret music. However, Leviten is not simply a neurologist; before he decided to pursue neurology as a career he was
a professional sound engineer recording music for acts such as John Fogerty and Blue Öyster Cult. Leviten talks about music the way a musician would talk about music; with passion. Music to him is very emotional, powerful, and personal and he analyzes why music causes people to feel like this. On top of that he also carries a great deal of music trivia. For instance: Did you know Led Zeppelin would tune their instruments away from the pitch standard of 440Hz? This means that instead of using 440Hz (what we call an “A” note) as the basis for all their tunings they would use something else like 430Hz, just to sound a little different. Though “A” being 440Hz is not completely arbitrary, we still just…well… sort of made it up.
On that note (cue the rim shot please) I have included a writing by David Fair, a musician who espouses “outsider” music, which discusses said arbitrariness, or what may also be called “Personal Taste.”
How to Play Guitar
By David Fair
I taught myself to play guitar. It’s incredibly easy when you understand the science of it. The skinny strings play the high sounds, and the fat strings play the low sounds. If you put your finger on the string farther out by the tuning end it makes a lower sound. If you want to play fast move your hand fast and if you want to play slower move your hand slower. That’s all there is to it. You can learn the names of notes and how to make chords that other people use, but that’s pretty limiting. Even if you took a few years and learned all the chords you’d still have a limited number of options. If you ignore the chords your options are infinite and you can master guitar playing in one day.
Traditionally, guitars have a fat string on the top and they get skinnier and skinnier as they go down. But the thing to remember is it’s your guitar and you can put whatever you want on it. I like to put six different sized strings on it because that gives the most variety, but my brother used to put all of the same thickness on so he wouldn’t have so much to worry about. What ever string he hit had to be the right one because they were all the same.
Tuning the guitar is kind of a ridiculous notion. If you have to wind the tuning pegs to just a certain place, that implies that every other place would be wrong. But that’s absurd. How could it be wrong? It’s your guitar and you’re the one playing it. It’s completely up to you to decide how it should sound. In fact I don’t tune by the sound at all. I wind the strings until they’re all about the same tightness. I highly recommend electric guitars for a couple of reasons. First of all they don’t depend on body resonating for the sound so it doesn’t matter if you paint them. Also, if you put all the knobs on your amplifier on 10 you can get a much higher reaction to effort ratio with an electric guitar than you can with an acoustic. Just a tiny tap on the strings can rattle your windows, and when you slam the strings, with your amp on 10, you can strip the paint off the walls.
The first guitar I bought was a Silvertone. Later I bought a Fender Telecaster, but it really doesn’t matter what kind you buy as long as the tuning pegs are on the end of the neck where they belong. A few years back someone came out with a guitar that tunes at the other end. I’ve never tried one. I guess they sound alright but they look ridiculous and I imagine you’d feel pretty foolish holding one. That would affect your playing. The idea isn’t to feel foolish. The idea is to put a pick in one hand and a guitar in the other and with a tiny movement rule the world.
Following this framework, the player defines the validity of their music, not the audience. It also gives license to anyone to play music free from the social/cultural constructs of “good” and “bad” therefore making music egalitarian or universal. Levitin also discusses this topic at length, sourcing African tribes who not only use the same word for “dance” as they do for “music,” they also sing and dance together as one tribe. To them music is inherent, and they are confused by someone who says they cannot dance, sing or play music. Unfortunately such people proliferate our culture, which Levitin calls a culture of “listeners.” I don’t mean to bash American culture, Jah knows I love my rock n’ roll, but it would be nice to see more activity and less passivity (and I’m not talking about moshing). I’ll end with a song from another legendary “outsider” musician, Jandek, from his album White Box Requiem, and a video interview with legendary bassist Victor Wooten . I hope you enjoy and please, any feedback you can offer is greatly appreciated, just play nice.
Andrew William Erdrich