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new 1/01


Ask The Xman
updated 1/01

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Welcome to ASK THE XMAN! I have received many responses since this site went up. It seems I need to clarify a few points. Please feel free to send in more questions!!


What is better: Learning songs or solos from records and CD's or taking lessons and learning from books (transcriptions and theory books/tab)?

The answer to this was argued when I started and will continue to be argued forever. Here is my answer: It depends on how YOU learn.

For me (repeat..FOR ME), I am totally clear on it, as I have seen it from both sides. Learning from records is thousands of times better than learning the same thing from a book or a teacher. Books and teachers are important, but only to help you learn more from the RECORDS. Here is how it works for me:

Think about your favorite solo written out for you in a BOOK and you are trying to learn it.. Ok...what information is there? Well, you have the notes which tells you the pitches. You also have a facsimile of the rhythm of the solo. have.....hmmm...thats about it?

What information is contained on the RECORDING of that same solo? Well, you have the pitches, except that you have to use your ears to figure out what they are. This quickly develops your ear, which is a good thing, especially if you're a musician.

You have the actual rhythm, not a facsimile. You get the exact feeling of the rhythm and not an indirect interpretation of it, which cannot ever be written down exactly as the player felt it. This information is ONLY found on the recording and cannot be written or expressed verbally by a teacher or a book.

You have the tone that the player used when making the recording. When learning it from the record, this tone will establish itself in your ears making it easier to discern appropriate tones from inappropriate tones. This information is ONLY found on the recording and cannot be written or expressed verbally by a teacher or a book. By the way...ever hear a rock person play something they learned out of a book? I recently heard a kid in Guitar Center playing "Crossroads" which is a classic beginner rock solo. He had the rhythm so goofy that I had to ask him how he came up with that. He said "That's how my teacher showed it to me". ...but I digress..

You have other information on the record such as inflections. How much vibrato is right for this phrase? How much string bending is appropriate to play this style authentically? How does the phasing 'feel'? This information is ONLY found on the recording and cannot be written or expressed verbally by a teacher or book.

If you only have the book, you will get none of this information. SO, you decide. When it comes time to audition for a band, and you show up with the stuff you learned from the book and teacher, and the 'other' guy shows up with the information he learned from the actual recordings of the tunes you are going to play, who do you think will get the gig? Who do you think will have developed an ear that can learn new tunes or passages quickly and on the fly? Who do you think will have a more developed tone? Who do you think will have stronger rhythmic phrasing? Who do you think will have an ear for fitting in with the drummer and bass player, the guy with the book or the guy who listened to the record 1000 times? Who is going to get this gig?

I once heard Jimmy Bruno say in one of his guitar show clincs, "If you NEVER want to develop your ears, get 'The Real Book"". For me, those are words to live by.

In the end, people will continue to argue this forever.

Do I need to learn to read music?

This is THE most asked question I get. There are other forms of this question such as, do I need to take lessons? Do I need to go to Julliard? Do I need to pay $66,000 for a decent guitar? Do I need to get a boob job to get noticed or should I just learn to play with my teeth or light my guitar on fire? Do I have to practice scales? Should learn ‘Modes”?…you get the picture.

Ok then, here is a single answer to all of those. HERE IS WHAT YOU NEED to play an instrument, according to me. This answer will be VERY controversial and everyone will have a different take on this. That is what I am hoping anyway so email me and I will post your responses to this. So please hit my blog for all to see.

There are 2 things in the front seat of what ‘you need’. In order they are:

  1. 1. Strong and musical rhythmic integrity in your phrasing (whether you are improvising or NOT).
  2. 2. The appropriate tone for the music you are playing.

After you spend 20 + years playing, studying music and practicing your instrument, you will realize that the difference between a novice and a great musician is mainly in the above 2 items. Phasing and tone. It’s your sense of time/phrasing and your tone that is the difference. Not notes, exotic scales, chops or anything else.

Though I will be referring to Jazz guitar, what I will talk about here goes for any instrument and any style of music.


This is the most important thing in any style at any time on any instrument whether you are reading a line, comping, or improvising. Nothing is more important than the way you phrase EVERYTHING you play. What the hell is phrasing and how could this be important at all?

Rhythmic integrity in your phrasing is hard to define…but examples of good and bad phrasing are everywhere.

If you want to know what solid phrasing sounds like, play ANY 8 bars of ANY Louis Armstrong recording (even if he only sings on it!). This guy invented good jazz phrasing. It’s putting the correct accent on the perfect note at the perfect time ALL the time. It’s ‘Swinging’ vs. a passage that just lays there flat and lifeless.

Specifically, for an example of stellar jazz phrasing, listen to Paul Gonzolves on Ellington at Newport where he plays 27 chorus of blues. Each chorus is better than the one before. Nothing he plays is that technical or advanced..but the phrasing makes ALL the difference. You can listen to that solo over and over and never get tired of it. The phrasing on this is about as good as it ever gets.

For not so great phrasing, listen to Martin Taylor play 'I Got Rhythm" on solo guitar. The chops are amazing and his speed is impressive..but ..does this sound good to you? On this particular track, Martin has neither 'Rhythm nor Music'. (for the record, outside of this track, Martin Taylor is one of my all time favorite players)

It's music that lives and breaths vs. someone playing some notes. I totally understand how ambiguous these definitions sound, but it serves my point here and will also illustrate another point later. That is, you cannot learn phrasing from what someone tells you, or from a book. You have to hear it and feel it. It has integrity when your listener feels it with you. that muddy enough for you?

You really do have to listen to Louis. You can also hear God given phasing ability come from Ella Fitzgerald. She could not have ‘learned’ her style of phrasing, as it was there by the time she first recorded as a young girl, and very likely before that when she was singing in Harlem. She was born with it, like Louis. Being able to phrase and having that sense of time as soon as you start learning to play is what ‘being born with musical talent’ means. But I do believe that the rest of us can learn how to phrase better and improve.

When Ella sings a ‘scat’ phrase, listen to when she makes her chord changes. Do they seem to happen when she WANTS them to happen, or do they just happen “whenever” or ‘close’ to the chord change? Do her phrases fall flat or do they swing? What do YOU think? Does Louis emphasize notes that make the phrase live, or does he play whatever note he can reach at the time, and hope it sounds good? Is he in control of the music, or just riding along, moving his fingers and hoping for the best?

How does it FEEL to YOU?

This may sound crazy, but when the vast majority of people listen to music of any kind, what they hear is the phrasing and the tones. By these two things, they identify and relate what they are hearing to the things they ‘want’ to hear. When that matches, they decide they like it. When what they hear and what they want to hear don t match, they tune out. Matches are determined by the rhythm and the tone. No one but other players listens to ‘chops’.

Go ahead now and pull out your Ipod and listen to a few phrases. Check out an Ella Fitzgerald version of How High the Moon, and then compare it with any other scat singer. Listen to the rhythms…not how fast, or how high or anything. but just whether or not the rhythm has integrity and stands up to the changes and the rest of the band. Then listen to …really, almost anybody else and you should hear a distinct drop in intensity and ‘swing’. answer to your above questions, an emphatic NO. Unless you are in a playing situation where writers or arrangers are putting written music on a stand in front of you, or you want to be a ‘studio guy’ reading charts. If you want to play tunes from the real book you will need to be able to read the heads or chord changes to play the tunes, unless you can learn them all from the records.

But to play, you only need solid musical phrasing and good tone. That’s the cake, the rest is only icing.

One more comment...for students who are buying tons of transcription books and videos and going to clinics etc. I can boil almost ALL OF that material down to 2 words. Nothing will do more for you than these 2 words. All the theory and insight from the great players is worthless unless u do these 2 words. The words are "LEARN TUNES"! Nothing you ever do is more important than knowing the tunes. You can't get up and jam with anyone unless u KNOW THE TUNES.

Then get a tone that expresses you, and swing with it.

That's all you need to play music.


Q: Do you give lessons?

I dont give formal lessons anymore. I am not much of a teacher. I am more of a cab driver than a teacher. What is the first thing that happens when you enter a cab?

YOU tell the driver where YOU want to go. Not the other way around. If you have questions, I am happy to answer any for free. But as far as a plan, I will leave it up to YOU to know where you want to go and what you are trying to sound like. Noone should have to tell you that. I may be able to drive you there, but you first have to tell me where we are going before I can take you there.

Keep this idea in mind should u decide to work with a teacher. Don't let a teacher just 'drive you around' for months (or years!) with the meter running. Make clear what YOUR destination is FIRST and then use the teacher (or book or training aids) to get there there as quickly as possible.

Q: Why don't you play more gigs?

A: I do like to play in front of people. For me it serves a simple purpose. It allows me to work on certain tunes or techniques under "performance pressure". This is MUCH different than practicing at home. I always felt that one hr in front of people is worth 100 hrs. in the shed. It makes you much stronger with whatever it is you're working on.

My comments on the other page were geared toward playing gigs just for the sake of playing or just for the money.

At this point, there is not much value in my going out to a wedding and playing "The Chicken Dance". That activity won't increase my chops or add to my repertoire, which are the main reasons for me to play jobs. It also won't do much for promoting sales of my CD, which is the other main reason for me to play a gig. I guess Im lucky in that I don't need the gigs for money, but if you do, then make as much as you can and play whatever you have to.

BUT: If the job will enhance my experience and/or promote my CD... then I will take the gig!

As of late, I have been jamming at 23rd st Cafe in Philly and we just do standards. This GREATLY adds to my repertoire. I am also available for weddings where I just play Classical guitar. See this page for the latest on my gigs. Please keep in mind that we are playing standards and I am not playing songs or versions that appear on my Axe of God CD at this gig. It's just a traditional jazz gig.

I had also been playing with a rock/funk band called Blue Trane, which left me a lot of room for free improvising. This is also great for working on different tones and keeping your chops loose. NOTHING can ever substitute for live experience, no matter what kind of music you do.

Q: Does anyone "really" improvise?

Well, I was surprised to get this question, but had often thought about it myself. I say no. I think the endless long streams of improv that players are capable of are really a result of rote practice. Most of people's improv is not 'inspired" playing, but simply "letting out" ideas and patterns that were PREVIOUSLY mastered in the shed or in their ears.

I subscribe to the idea that humans can ONLY play what they can hear. Everyone plays what they hear and have NO OTHER choices. You can ONLY play what you can hear. If there is some tonality or sonority that you may be fully aware of but have not taken the time to nail down the characteristics of, then, you simply CAN'T play it. Only after you figure out what makes Phrygian sound like Phrygian in your head..and I mean the NOTES that make it work, then you are not going to magically 'improvise' Phrygian some night on the bandstand.

But, if you keep hearing it in your ear and keep trying to hone in on what is
making up that
mode, you will eventually 'hear' it and only then will you be able to play it.

If you read accounts of Charlie Parker, you will read his account of discovering the upper structures of chords. He said he had been 'hearing' this sound in his head for months, but could not identify it. He hadn't nailed down the notes and figured out the formula yet, so he COULDNT play it in his improv yet. Then (as he remembers) he was on a NYE gig when he stumbled into some chord extensions and something he played MATCHED what he had been hearing.

Once he figured out what he was 'hearing' he could then begin using it ...and as they say the rest is history. Until then, however, he was simply repeating and rearranging his trick bag. Once
he added the upper structure of chords, he had a much bigger trick bag, but the sounds are not improvised. They were all previously worked out, and he can now pull them out of the bag at
will and in any conceivable order (making him a master of the chord change and tempo) but not improvising any more that if you plugged all of his trick bag in a random generator and pressed the button. This IN NO WAY demeans what Parker or any other player does, but to me "REAL" improv would be someone getting up on stage, never having heard jazz in their life and playing Dippermouth Blues like Louis Armstrong, NEVER having heard it before. This doesn't happen. Or someone like Clapton picking up a guitar and going into 'Freight Train' like Chet Atkins...this can't happen unless EC sheds ... for a LONG time on it, puts it in his trick bag and masters it to the point where he can pull it out at will (like Doyle Dykes). (Also, the story of Parker is mostly legend. If you listen to his solos, Parker rarely went into the upper structures of chords, but I use the story to illustrate)

But then, it wouldn't be improvised...would it? So, to sum up, when people study improv they are just learning to pack a bigger trick bag. Is anyone gonna challenge me on this??

Q: You say the only purpose for gigs is to sell something? What about an artist who does an art show?

A: I don't know that many artists, but the ones I know put on art sell their art. There are some shows where nothing is for sale, such as Ansel Adams photographic
prints. You cannot buy his work, but museums show these items. In order to see them, though, you have to pay an admission price: cha-ching!

Q: What pick do you use?

A: Ok, next question.

Q: What strings do u use on your guitar?

A: I prefer guitar strings. I'm not trying to be sarcastic here, but these things really don't matter to me much and I pay little attention to equipment, brand names and other 'clickish' parts of the music biz. I have no idea what strings are on my guitars, and..I will admit, I never change them. I have refrets done on a guitar, that's when it will get new strings or if a string breaks ( I have not broken a string in over 2 years-I actually track it).

Q: Who is your favorite guitar player?

A: I have no idea. I don't rank musicians. There are many great ones and I also enjoy the not so great ones. This isn't football, so no ranking makes sense to me.

The last few cds I bought were by Pat Martino, Doyle Dykes, some Wes and Pass.
I buy a lot of CDs other than guitar like Sonny Rollins, Coltrane and Miles. I don't have a 'best' guitar player list but at the moment I really am enjoying the Dave Liebman Band which includes Vic Juris and a great drummer, Marko Marcinko. I would love to be in a band like that one. Check out Dave's website, he writes some very indepth music articles.

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