Category Archives: Guitar

7 Tips for Overcoming Songwriter’s Block

The brilliant jazz composer/pianist/vocalist Dave Frishberg once wrote a song titled “My Swan Song” in which he ruminates about the challenge of continuing to come up with new song ideas. Frishberg sings, “It’s the final cry of a dry imagination.”

If you’ve ever put pencil to staff paper or simply tried to hum along a new melody to a few chords on your acoustic guitar, I’m sure you know the feeling. I broke out of a personal songwriter’s slump late last year and pumped out a few tunes. Here are a few things I learned that might help you if you’re struggling with composition:

Rewriting is Easier than Writing

Beatles Abbey RdPaul McCartney woke up in the middle of the night with the idea for the song “Yesterday.” But as he tells the story, he used the title “Scrambled Eggs” instead. He was simply trying to pen lyrics to match the song so he wouldn’t forget the idea, knowing he’d rewrite later. Don’t get hung up on the song trying to find the perfect lyrics. Write something with roughly the appropriate number of syllables and go back and rewrite later.

I’ve written and published 2 books and probably 60-70 songs. In both cases, I’ve found that it’s easier to get ideas out and edit later than to try to make them perfect from the outset.

Capture Every Idea

I have a voice memo function on my smartphone, and I’d imagine most of you do as well. Every time you have an idea, even a couple of lines or a few chords with a melody, capture it. You never know which one can blossom into a full song, but if you plant enough seeds, one will grow into something beautiful.

Walk Away and Come Back

Sometimes a little time away can recharge your batteries or help you look at a song or an idea differently. I’ve had songs that I walked away from because I wasn’t pleased with them. After some time away, I had new ideas – change the tempo, change a few chords, or reverse the order of the verses.

There’s a Reason They Call it the “Creative Process”

In Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art, he speaks of how the artist doesn’t take criticism too personally. They understand that they aren’t defined by any particular piece of art, but rather each work is part of a creative process. They’ll wake up tomorrow and go to work again. Some days/works will be better than others, but each is a step forward.

Write Some Bad Songs

Don’t be deterred because something you wrote doesn’t necessarily live up to your standard. Go ahead and see the work through to completion. Maybe you’ll revisit and improve the song later, but maybe not. You’ll feel better about yourself and your creative abilities if you see ideas through to completion every once in a while, even if you’re not completely happy with the song, rather than just a collection of half-finished songs that leave you frustrated.

Change Your Routine

I typically start composing by strumming chords on the guitar (or piano), then I’ll try to find melodies that fit, and finally lyrics to match the song after the chords and melodies are complete. But I was in a rut using that technique for a long time. So I just started writing lyrics one day. It unlocked my muse, so to speak. Shortly thereafter, I returned to my usual methodology, but changing my routine got me back in a rhythm again, and the ideas started to flow again.

Learn Something New/ Listen to Something Different

Paul McCartney speaks of a Minor 7th chord at the start of the Bridge of the song “From Me to You” as a real breakthrough. Remember that many of the early songs of the Beatles like “Love Me Do” were very simplistic musically and the band was influenced by many of the 3-chord songs of early rockers like Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins. McCartney also suggested to Producer George Martin that they try a piccolo trumpet solo in the song “Penny Lane” after seeing a BBC performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto.

When you consider how far the Beatles took popular music from the late 50’s and early 60’s to albums like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band and Abby Road, it really puts their accomplishments into perspective. If you’re a rock or pop songwriter, listening to new genres might not turn you into a jazz or classical musician, but it might make you better at what you do.

Expand your music vocabulary to give you a broader foundation of ideas to draw from.

Jazz Guitar Picking and Fingering Technique Survey: Players Weigh In

I posed a question of some of the greatest guitar players living in/emanating from/or with ties to New Orleans recently regarding picking/fingering technique that some guitar players grapple with, particularly jazz guitarists:

Q:  Alright guitarists, question. I often prefer using thumb and fingers to pluck chords, especially when omitting a string, but prefer the pick when soloing. I’ve seen some with a “slip” pick that’s attached to a thumb or finger that you can slide around as needed. Have you found an off the shelf solution, and if you’ve developed your own gizmo, what do you use?

Steve Olsen:

“I slip the pick between my index and middle while comping chords or chord melody playing…when I need to solo the pick is handy”

Steve’s website

Davy Mooney:

“I always use pick and fingers, and keep my nails kinda long, so they sound kinda like picks. I wrestled with various solutions for years before settling on this one….”

Davy’s Website

 

Jimmy Robinson:

“I make a pick with a plastic electrical clamp and a little screwpost. It fits on my index finger. When using my fingers, or thumb, the pick is completely out of the way. It does require re learning technique a bit, but it works for me. Cranston Clements is the other person on earth who uses it. You can see it in this clip”


Jimmy’s website

Bill Solley:

“I play finger style completely using classical guitar technique along with a few of my own!!!”

Bill’s (and vocalist Kim Prevost’s) Website

 

The One Thing Every Musician Needs to Earn a Living

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I took my family to a local restaurant in New Orleans called Felipe’s in the area known as Mid-City recently. Local guitarist Chip Wilson was playing on the patio. Most venues that have music are drinking establishments with age limits, so I’m always pleased to find a rare gem of a venue with live music where I can bring my family.

Chip is one of the good guys of New Orleans music, and a talented, versatile musician. A former luthier who transitioned to mastering the instruments he once produced, Chip is a bluesy, rootsy, jazzy, singer-songwriter with such tremendous command of the instrument. His playing evokes a cycle of inspiration and frustration for six-string layperson wannabes like myself, but I’m mesmerized by the way he engulfs the guitar with his finger-picking style.

When we were ready to leave, I walked back into the restaurant’s bar area and asked for a manager on duty. When he nervously approached, I said, “I just wanted to tell you that I’m always looking for place that I can bring my family to hear live music. I really appreciate you hiring great live musicians.” He thanked me for the feedback.

It’s easy to blame the venues for dwindling support of musicians, and there’s plenty we can criticize. I’m reminded of a viral ad that a restaurant posted for musicians to play for exposure in their restaurant and a musician’s comical reply. There are plenty of musician exploitation stories out there. But for the most part, restaurants and clubs are weighing a business decision – will the money I fork out for live music in my establishment be a good investment?

The truth is that if you don’t let the owner or manager know that you specifically sought out their venue because there was music, they’ll never know. So when there’s a slow season or there’s a downturn in the economy, it’s easy to cut back live music. If it drives more business than the musician’s fee, then not cutting music is a no-brainer.

The one thing every musician needs – supporters who are willing to take action.

So when you appreciate live music, let them know it. Somebody’s living depends on it.

Bobby Lonero (1943-2013)

bobby & craigI’ve written several dozen music articles and reviews for local publications and jazz websites as a sideline over the past 7 years. I write mostly for the satisfaction of shedding light on musicians whom I believe have had a level of publicity or recognition that pales in comparison to their considerable accomplishments.

My friend and musical colleague Bobby Lonero passed away recently. Bobby was best known for his spot-on renditions of Louis Prima’s Greatest Hits, making him a favorite of the considerable Italian-Sicilian-American community in New Orleans. Italian-American Marching Club events, St. Joseph’s Day festivities, parades, weddings, banquets – Bobby was a fixture and brought immense joy to all of those events for roughly 50+ years as a professional musician.

Bobby Lonero was not widely known beyond the metropolitan New Orleans area. He had an original song or two that received airplay and charted in the late fifties, but nothing that would be highly recognizable beyond the most devout music historians. Bobby’s greatest legacy will be the thousands of glasses of red wine raised in celebration, wedding dances of Fathers and daughters named Angelina, Marie, or Giovanna, music accompanying St. Joseph’s Day parades, and Tarantella’s danced on overcrowded New Orleans dance floors.

Bobby Lonero was not perfect. His financial difficulties sometimes strained relationships with fellow musicians. He could be forgetful and disorganized. He sometimes embellished the truth. But as is the case with most accomplished musicians, when the final tally is completed by the only accountant who matters, the smiles and the joy and the memories he created for others will far outweigh his faults. And it’s not even a close call.

So as I find proper epitaphs difficult to come by and very little fanfare on display as I reflect on Bobby’s life and career, 5 1/2 decades of a working musician’s life at least seems worthy of a simple blog post.

bobbyloneroBobby Lonero and the New Orleans Express were inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame roughly a decade ago. From late 2002-2004, I played several dozen jobs with Bobby’s band, so in some small way I guess my association with Bobby affords me a sense of music immortality.

I couldn’t attempt to compile a complete chronicle Bobby’s career. The formal documentation of his career is minimal, and most events would have to be pieced together from the recollections of the thousands of musicians who shared the stage with Bobby. Everyone has their own personal version, and this is mine.

My earliest memories of Bobby were of my parents going out to see Bobby’s band at local music/dance clubs in the early 70’s when dancing, drinking, mingling, and leisure suits were the order of the day. The culture was different then, before DJ’s, karaoke, and synthesized 1-man bands took over the night club scene. As a teen I took up the guitar and joined a garage rock band, with plans to conquer the world with our original songs. My dad once asked upon hearing one of those original songs why we didn’t focus more on cover songs. “Bobby Lonero plays other people’s songs, and he makes money playing music,” he would say.

Perhaps that was Bobby’s greatest strength and shortcoming. As time moved on, Bobby’s repertoire gravitated increasingly toward Louis Prima hits to satisfy his Italian-American following. Though he recorded and pursued original songs early in his career, he never quite caught the break that would give him a defining “signature” song that so many other New Orleans artists used to propel their careers. When we had conversations about songs that he had recorded and written, there were also stories of deals gone bad and promises not kept that doomed some of those songs and recordings to obscurity.

For decades I knew Bobby only casually as the musician I’d see at Italian events, parades, and celebrations. In 2002 our musical paths would cross serendipitously. My Uncle Walton “Duke” Duplantis was known to many in New Orleans as the host of Franky & Johnny’s restaurant who would sing Sinatra hits on the P.A. system along with the jukebox that still spun vinyl 45’s. When friends and extended family decided to give Duke one “Big Night,” a first class Black Tie events where the charismatic, yet perhaps unpolished vocalist could realize his musical aspirations, we all knew there was only one backup band who could fill the bill – Bobby Lonero and the New Orleans Express.

I had written charts for many of the Sinatra tunes that Duke was familiar with, and for several months Bobby, Duke and I worked out the kinks and honed in on the songlist, later bringing in the full band. The fruits of those efforts came to fruition in November of 2002 at a sold out Rosy’s Jazz Hall on Tchoupitoulas St., a night that will be remembered fondly by all who knew these 2 musicians, the background story, or both.

There would be annual “Duke’s Big Night” shows again in 2003 and 2004. We would play smaller clubs with a scaled down band in the months in between. After the 2004 show, I began to pursue some of my original music with other musicians, and Bobby and I lost touch musically. On occasion we would cross paths, and I’d help him out with transportation or a favor, or I’d buy him lunch.

I guess what I’ll always remember is how happy Bobby would be when things went well musically. The instrumental song “Europa” became somewhat of a signature song for me, as the saxophone player and I would trade off verses and licks throughout. Bobby always laughed and smiled at me when we tore that one up. We once worked out harmonized licks at the end of the bridge in the song “You Make Me Feel So Young,” and we were both in musical heaven when our two guitars plucked in unison.

We played an Italian Festival in Kenner years ago, and I’ll never forget one song in particular. I took a break for a couple of songs and walked the audience, and one of those songs was a crowd pleaser known as “Eh Gumbari.” He had a number of parents line up with young children along the front of the stage, each participating as the kids shouted out the various instrument names and the band echoed the sounds. It’s a wonder anyone would have the patience to pull off such a feat. But Bobby’s defining quality was that he so desperately wanted everyone to enjoy the music and that he wanted everyone involved. And rarely did Bobby fail to get such a reaction and participation from his audience.

I surprised him once in 2005 when my wife and I took a weekend getaway to the Mississippi Gulf Coast where, to our surprise, he was playing at one of the hotel lounges. He lit up with an ear to ear grin when we walked in and told the audience that a great musician and great guitarist with whom he had played many, many shows had just entered the bar. Bobby had such respect for fellow musicians. I don’t think I can ever recall an instance where he denied a request of a fellow musician to sit in when we were playing together.

He asked if I had any requests, and he obliged with “Banana Split for My Baby,” another real crowd pleaser.

I had the above photo of Bobby & I framed, and I brought it to him one day to sign. He wrote simply, “To a great player and a great friend. Your forever friend, Bobby.”

Here’s one final musical memory of Bobby – a poignant Christmas song I had the pleasure of performing with him live entitled “Christmas for Two.”

Dave Wish of Little Kids Rock Discusses the Benefits of Music Education

In 2008, I conducted a series of interviews with music educators, professionals, musicians, and advocates articulating the universal benefits of music education and participation. One of the most memorable of those discussions was with Dave Wish, founder and Executive Director of the non-profit, “Little Kids Rock.” LKR provides musical instruments and instruction to at-risk kids and teachers.

Great points made by Dave that should be staples of any music enthusiast’s/advocate’s discussions!

The Movie “Once” and Commitment to your Artistry

null I love movies about music/musicians, and I had heard great things about the movie Once, but didn’t get around to seeing it until recently. It’s about a singer/songwriter who performs on the streets of Ireland while working in a vacuum cleaner repair shop by day. He meets a piano player and they collaborate to bring their musical aspirations to life.

The storyline of artists struggling to develop their God-given talents pursue the dream in a world where the deck is stacked against them never gets old for me. It also brings to mind the reality of how committed one must be to overcome those odds. I once asked vocalist Irma Thomas, known as the “Soul Queen of New Orleans” what she did when times in the music business got tough. She stated simply, ” I went out and got a job.” Sometimes it’s that simple, but it’s never easy.

The movie also avoids so many of the typical movie clichés, making it more real and believable. It’s magical in its understated simplicity.

And the storyline mirrors the career of the musician who co-wrote the soundtrack and who played the lead role in the movie, Glen Hansard, who dropped out of school at age 13 to perform on the streets of Dublin and is now a successful songwriter and Academy award winner.

So you say you love music. That’s great. But when time are tough, you must ask yourself, “How committed am I and what am I willing to do to overcome the obstacles in front of me?

Here’s a performance of the Oscar-winning song “Falling Slowly” at the Sundance Film Festival.

Hidden Music Gems from the iPod

Here’s a suggestion if you’re an iPod or .mp3 player owner. Rather than playing your favorite albums and songs, set your player to randomly select songs. You’ll find great tunes you’d forgotten about – what I like to call hiden gems. Here are a quick 5 that I found on my iPod recently:

All That I Need is Love by Melody Gardot

Express by Marilyn Harris

Eternal Love by Utopia

Skylark by Kim Prevost and Bill Solley

Esplanade by Tim Laughlin and Hank Mackie

Peace of Mind, Boston, Stonehawk, and a Lifetime of Memories

I can remember my first day in a rock band like it was yesterday. I made the life-changing decision to pursue guitar lessons in the summer of 1978, just prior to my 14th birthday. From that day forward, I spent 2 years with a singular goal as my source of motivation – to reach the level of proficiency that would allow me to play in a rock and roll band. “Oh, Susanna,” “Good King Wenceslas,” and “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore” were simply a means to an end.

Then after 2 years practicing on my Acoustic guitar, the planets aligned. Cousin Steve, a drummer knew Kevin who could sing. He asked me and cousin Jay (another guitarist) if we wanted to start a band. Stonehawk was born, and the rest is history.

A couple of second-hand guitars (as Bachman-Turner Overdrive once sang), an amplifier from American Rent-All, and we were on our way. The first song we attempted was “Peace of Mind” (Video below) by the band Boston. Jay strummed the intro chords for 4 measures, and Steve and I kicked in with the drums and lead. “Now you’re feelin’ kinda low ’bout the dues you’ve been payin’…”

I can say that the “high” of making what I considered real rock music for the first time was one of the greatest memories of my adolescence. New band members and another band would come and go over the years (Mark and Darryl and Darrell and Joe, then Private Joy with Rocky and Mark). We knew that the odds were long on success, but the possibilities were endless. So when a few of my former bandmates started a comment thread of reminiscings on Facebook recently, I found myself frustrated – I wanted to find a hidden transcipt of every conversation, every joke – a diary of every band practice, every silly discussion we had about selecting a band name or a songlist – planning the details of our imaginary world tour.

“It sometimes occurs to me that the thing that scares us the most when we’re young is the unpredictability of the future. Then, the thing that scares us the most when we’re older is the predictability.”

Here’s to the unpredictability of youth, and to all of the past members (at one time or another) of Stonehawk: Band for the ’80’s. 

Bernie Williams “Take Me Out To the Ball Game”

As we’ve mentioned here previously, music and sports are often seen as opposing forces in the world of education, as budget cuts force administrators to choose where dollars should be allocated. Here’s someone who has seen the benefits of both activities, musician and former New York Yankees Centerfielder Bernie Williams.

According to an article at NY Daily News, at a recent function of the non-profit Little Kids Rock, one little girl asked the ex-centerfielder what he liked better, baseball or music.

“Tough question,” responded Williams. “Baseball was my job and a lot of fun, but music was always in my life. And you know what? The older I got, the more I realized I wanted to be a musician when I grew up. .. . I think I have to give the edge to music a little.”

Here’s Bernie’s poignant rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

Music Blog Anniversary Edition: ‘Til There Was You

Today marks 17 years of marriage with my wonderful wife Kim. I suppose she’s stood by me through more than most would have. I’ve always believed that the greatest thing that you can do for a loved one is support their dreams, and she’s always been willing to sacrifice for me to pursue mine. For that I am supremely grateful.

While most couples have a song they consider their own, we really have 2 songs that are memorable to us. We danced to the song “We’re All Alone” by Boz Scaggs at our wedding, but I later performed the Beatles’ “Til There Was You” (well, not actually composed by the Beatles, but the version I was familiar with growing up) to her at our wedding reception.

I’ll let Paul McCartney and the Fab Four do the honors today: