Sheffield, not exactly a hot bed of classical guitar happenings, will be treated to not one but two guitar recitals in March, when Nick Fletcher and Eddie Foster perform at the Sheffield Cathedral.
The free lunchtime recitals (donations towards the Cathedral welcome) take place most Fridays at 1.15pm in the main part of the cathedral, where the vast acoustics make for a very mellow and magical sound. Perfectly timed to fit into a lunch hour, the recitals are a great way to take some time out, relax, reflect, and enjoy some wonderful music.
I enjoyed Jill Crossland’s piano recital back in January, where I enjoyed her vibrant and impassioned playing of some of my baroque faves – Scarlatti and Bach among them.
I sat rather gingerly a bit far back, which meant some of the faster playing was a little blurred in the large, reverberating acoustics. My tip – don’t be afraid to get up close and personal if you want to hear the music at it’s best!
Nick Fletcher, Guitar
On Friday 24th, local Classical Guitarist Nick Fletcher will be playing a mixed programme of classical guitar repertoire including his own compositions. Here’s a video of Nick playing the classic Carcassi A major study and a link to his Facebook page:
The following Friday 31st (when I’ll be on a train to London for my Stag Do !!), fellow hirsute strummer (and artist) Edward Foster will also perform his own compositions – from his recently released album. His lush tone and romantic stye should really sing in the cathedral!
With each new beginner guitar pupil I meet, I find myself recommended certain must-have bits of gear – things I think make a guitarist’s life that little bit easier. Over the years I’ve found myself trying all sorts of different gadgets and gizmos, designed to improve our playing and make gigs run like clockwork.
Here are my top 4 recommendations for the guitarists toolbag – tech and gear I wouldn’t do without. It’s useful not only for guitarists, but for friends and family of guitarists who might be looking for great gift ideas for their budding Hendrix!
So, up first, Tuners:
1. Clip-on Tuners
Clip-on tuners are a great invention. Small enough to fit in your gig bag, and powerful enough to quickly pick up chromatic tunings through the vibrations of your guitar. There’s now a dizzying array of these on offer – just look at the range available from Rich Tone Music here…
If, like me, you often can’t remember why you just walked up the stairs, or where the cup of tea you just made disappeared to, you might also, like me, struggle to remember where your recently purchased clip-on tuner ended up clipped-on.
But, you always have your smart phone on you, right?
So, it’s lucky then that plucky I.T. entrepreneurs have flooded the Android and IOS App market with tons of free tuning apps. I like the recently pimped up TUNA tuning app.
There’s a more in-depth review of it here, but it’s a really easy-to-use app which can auto detect the note you’re playing (through your phone/tablet microphone so not ideal in noisy gig environments – hence the clip-on tuner’s use) It has an interesting and intuitive seismograph-esque display to help you tune up or down, and it gives you a little congratulatory beep when you get the note in tune. It’s got something of the computer game about it.
Thanks to the graphic display of the headstock and large note names, it’s great for beginners just getting to grips with learning the open strings, which tuning peg are which, and which way to turn it and the ‘AARGH I’M GOING TO PULL MY HAIR OUT’ sort of feeling when tuning. With this app you’ll be breezing through your tuning in no time.
(As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that I always encourage guitarists to tune their guitar EVERY TIME they pick it up, even if they think it’s in tune, or it was only tuned ten minutes ago. I am convinced there are impish little creatures who sneak around when our backs are turned to fiddle with tuning pegs – sometimes even when we’re playing.)
The app also has some fun learning games, and a very good Metronome. If you’re still not convinced, see this Youtube review here…
More advanced players might find it a little toy-like, and opt for more streamlined apps such as Cleartune, or the retro vintage valve vibes of Chromatic Guitar Tuner. There’s loads to choose from. Like I said, developers developed the heck out of tuning apps!
Here’s a good article listing some of the top Android apps out there to help you decide:
Essential to avoid getting R.S.I’s, and not to mention extreme boredom, when changing your strings. Because you’re a good pupil, and practicing an awful lot every day, you’ll no doubt need to change your strings at least once a month, right? So, save yourself hours over the course of a year (I’ve done the maths, this is a fact) by using one of these nifty gadgets to quickly un and re-wind your string tension.
You can pick these up for one or two pounds in your local music shop, or if you’re feeling flush, get one of these winders with in-built wire cutter, for removing excess string
For Classical Guitarists, the issue of ‘to footstool or not to footstool‘ is a very personal one. I’ve seen bar room brawls break out, fingernails flying, rasguedo backhanders and G String garrotings all over the suggestion that guitar rests are for cheats.
I sit on the fence nowadays. Sometimes, I love the connection I feel with the guitar and the ground when I’m slightly hunched over it, left foot planted on a footstool. When I bought my first Gitano guitar rest about five years ago though, I loved it. When I play corporate gigs, plucking away for one or two hours at a time, it really helps avoid leg and back strain. Now I’m in my *cough* late thirties, after over twenty five years of guitar practice, I’m afraid sciatica has come a-knocking. This means I need to take regular breaks from practice to roll around on the floor red-faced, stretching and contorting myself to find relief. I’ve also started doing yoga, but then I do live in Meersbrook, so that’s standard behaviour.
One of my favourite ways to learn from music is through the analysis and contextualising of songs. Rather than taking the approach of learning a song just for the sake of playing it, I find great value in picking songs apart, drilling down, getting to the bare bones of what makes them what they are. There’s so much joy to be had in playing music – but what if we could figure out what makes it work, what makes it, well, good. From classical composers, who would copy out entire symphonies by their predecessors just to learn from them, to modern songwriters like Lennon and McCartney, who absorbed and reconstituted decades of diverse musical styles, musicians have always listened to, learned from, and to an extent, copied others.
I’ve been working with my pupil James on developing his all-round musicianship and musical knowledge, to try and help him progress to new levels as a musician. He’s already a very good player, with a well established technique – one of those players that you know would, if they have a mind to, really connect with the notes they’re playing and make a great sound on the guitar (isn’t that what it’s all about, technique?) He’s keen to understand the theory behind the songs and techniques, so that he can compose his own songs more confidently.
The case study I looked at with James this week is a great example. Gabrielle Aplin’s How Do You Feel Todayis steeped in the influences which formed her – folk greats like Joni Mitchell, John Martyn and Nick Drake. While she’s channelling these through the flowing, driving, fingerpicking of her Open G-tuned song, because she is singing, she’s made it her own. You can’t deny the beauty of her singing and playing in this song:
So, I set about pulling it apart, learning it, transcribing it (you can download my TAB of the Intro,Verse, Chorus here) and trying to tease out the key learning points to share in a lesson. It combines most of my favourite things about playing the guitar – Travis Picking techniques, open tunings, using parallel chords up the neck to create melodic lines, and letting fretted and open notes over-ring, creating all manner of odd chords. Playing in an open tuning is like taking a step back a couple of decades for me, unlearning all the shapes, pentatonics, scale boxes and patterns you quickly become reliant on as a guitarist. You’re encouraged – forced – to have an ‘open’ (ta dum) mind towards the fingerboard. “I’ll put my fingers there, it sounds nice, I’ll do that again.” As James pointed out, as you’ve always got the chords notes of the open tuning to fall back on, you can’t really go wrong!
If you’d like to learn a song, but REALLY learn it, get in touch and make a suggestion. As well as having a clear idea of good routes to progression, I’m also very happy to work with my pupils to choose alternative routes. I don’t think there’s a single song or piece of music that wouldn’t have something valuable to learn.
Without doubt, my least favourite chore to do is changing guitar strings. I’m not sure why, but it rates right up there with vacuuming the stairs (terrifying) and dusting the ‘objet trouvé‘ (middle class woes). Perhaps it’s to do with bad experiences of the past: Frustratingly breaking strings mid tune-up, the top ‘E’ string nearly slicing open my eye in an explosively Dali-esque flash of snapped steel. Or, the moment when you forget that the tip of a steel guitar string is perfectly designed to puncture the human finger, leaving me scampering off for a tetanus injection.
Whenever I do actually pluck up the guts to do it (roughly once a month, or weekly when I’m gigging lots) it’s rarely as bad as I think, and it’s a good chance to give the thing a nice clean, and brighten up the sound loads.
Steel strung acoustic guitars are fiddly, almost as awkward as a classical guitar (more on that in the future) and it seems like you need at least one extra hand to get the job done. Thank god for YouTube then, as there are lots of very helpful guitar experts, techs and luthiers who are willing to share their experience. This video in particular taught me a few tricks which I now use, making the whole thing much easier and more effective….
Ok, so we might not all have an ELECTRIC STRING WINDER like that dude, but we should at least have some of the following tools…
A nice soft cloth to give the guitar a once-over.
Some guitar polish (not essential, but it’s nice to give it a bit of a pamper)
Pliers/wire cutters, to trim the excess string off.
String winder – this is the one thing I would not do with out, they make the job loads easier!
There’s me showing off my camera’s ‘macro’ mode with this sultry close-up of my string winder. They cost about £1-2 in most good music shops, and are a total godsend. Not only do they make the job of turning the machine heads much easier, but they have a notch (the gap on the far left end of the winder in the picture) which helps pull out the string bridge pegs (at the other end).
Rather than take you through the whole process here, I’ll just mention some top tips I like to follow (most of which are in the above instruction video).
Firstly, like the guy in the video, it’s really best to have your guitar laying flat on a table, rather than trying to hold it as you’re changing the strings. It may be obvious to most, but I’ve wasted loads of time in the past not following that advice, trying to wrestle with the guitar, the strings, and the winder. Use a towel or blanket to cover the table or desk top and protect your guitar’s finish, and then you’ve got both hands free, and your instrument safe.
Next, when you’re getting the string to hold onto the machine head, you don’t need to tie it off. Just give the string a kink around the ‘peg’, wrap it around once, then let the tension of the string grip to itself as you tighten it up.
I like to pull the string fully up…
Then feed it back about an inch and a bit and tweak it until it kinks….
Then wrap once around.
That’s normally enough to keep the string in tune, and then you don’t have to mess around un-tying lots of string knots when you come to take them off for your next string change.
Trust me, you don’t want to be un-tying strings, it’s a thankless task which more often than not results in the above mentioned finger-skewering!
I like to trim off the excess strings as I go…helps with the O.C.D. and keeps them out of the way…When bringing the strings back up to tension and tuning them I use a clip-on tuner to make sure I don’t go too far, snapping a string. I also like to take it slow…I imagine that whacking the guitar from zero to full tension in super-quick time isn’t going to do it any good. Also when doing this I have a habit of backing away from the guitar, as I’m constantly paranoid that a string will break and slice something off. This level of cowardliness is not an essential part of guitar maintenance, just something I’ve developed.
And I suppose that’s it. It’s never actually as bad as I make it out to be, and it’s always worth it, when the guitar starts settling in to tune, and sounds great. Good luck!
We’re nice people here in Sheffield. That’s why throughout January I’m offering 10% off guitar lessons here at Little Sheffield Guitar Studio. For an hour’s lesson, you’ll pay just £18, for a 45 minute lesson, £15, and a 30 minute lesson will cost just £13.50.
“Pft”, you scoff, “10% of twenty quid is only £2 – what can I do with that?”
Well, I’ll tell you: you can get a lovely coffee downstairs at The Harland Cafe. Or, if you’re in need of a bit of a culinary cuddle, the salted caramel chocolate brownie (yes, thats right – Salted Caramel + Chocolate, in a brownie) is one of the most ridiculously tasty things I’ve eaten.
You can probably get some sort of fun but bewildering camping gadget next door at Go Outdoors (just make sure you’ve got their ‘discount card’ first) or some rare and exotic groceries at the brilliant Ozmen Supermarket on London Road.
It’ll also get you a bus ticket, with change, or if you’re lucky enough to be a student, or young person, your bus both ways. If, like me, you’ve got a habit of losing your plectrums almost instantly, you could get four or five replacements (my favourites are Jim Dunlop Tortex) from local music shops Wavelength Music, Richtone or Wizard Guitars.
Anyway, you see what I mean. So, if you’re coming for lessons during January on either a pay-as-you-go basis, or with a block booking, you’ll be getting a little something back each time you come. See you soon!
It’s at this time of year, as we all start to wind down for Christmas Day, that I start to get all reflective, looking back on the achievements of the last twelve months.
It’s been one of the best yet, with all sorts of exciting developments, discoveries and stories. I feel a tremendous sense of gratitude to all the lovely pupils who have chosen me to help guide them on their musical journey. And it’s great to still have contact with some of my old Liverpool clients / friends via my online Skype lessons.
With a relocation to Sheffield back in February, there’s been all sorts of new experiences here, as I get to know new people and explore this fascinating place. With the new location has come lots of other exciting ‘side projects’, getting involved in local heritage organisations, and starting a new large-scale composition work exploring the history of the city. Oh, and a new allotment plot, that’s pretty exciting too. Look forward to lots of christmas veg hampers next year!
Finally, in October I settled into a lovely new ‘HQ’ at the vibrant and bustling Harland Works, in the heart of Sheffield’s ‘Little Sheffield’ area. It’s a great place to work and teach, and to welcome visitors and clients, and there’s dangerously good coffee and cake at The Harland Cafe, just downstairs.
I’m positively buzzing at the prospect of an even better year to come in 2015, as plans take shape to increase my offer and really set down roots in South Yorkshire.
As well as making music, I’m one of those odd types who loves running around on muddy hills. I’m an aspiring Fellrunner. There, I said it. Since moving to Sheffield, I can be found several times a week, getting hopelessly lost, out of breath, and up to my ankles in bog, somewhere, in a field, In Derbyshire (to paraphrase Pulp). When I spotted a workshop advertised on twitter called ‘Hills Made Easy’, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hang out with other similar intrepid runners.
The group workshop was led by the ‘Two Stu’s’ – Stuart Hale and Stuart Bond from the Accelerate Performance Centre. ‘Stu number one’ is a respected and hugely experienced sports and nutrition coach, with years of training elite and ultra athletes under his lycra-clad belt, ‘Stu number two’ who assisted on the workshop, is an incredibly talented and dedicated athlete competing at the top of his game, and was a great inspiration and model for us attendees to follow.
What I found most interesting about the two sessions was the ethos of rigour and precision which underpinned their approach. We were encouraged to work towards achieving a more efficient, strong and effective hill running technique, before even thinking about fitness or speed. The mantra I picked up which was instilled throughout was – Technique and Strength. With these two in hand (or, leg) the rest would become, as the workshop name suggests, easy.
The parallels with musical progression are clear and very relevant. Good technique on the guitar is so important. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for embracing and celebrating individuality, but if you have an idiosyncratic playing style, like running up a steep hill, you’ll find playing much harder!
Strength as well, is appropriate – the right kind of strength. You won’t see many muscle-bound hill-runners out there on the fells. They’d soon grow tired (or frustrated) of lugging all that muscle mass and weight around with them. But good runners ARE strong. The strength is there, where it counts – in the core muscles of your midriff, keeping your body stable and in control and allowing you to keep good form. It’s in the legs and bum, transferring controlled and purposeful power through your feet into the ground. Similarly, good guitarists will have built up a secret strength in the many and complex muscles and tendons of the fingers, hands and wrists. It’s not a strength achieved from gripping exercise balls or pushing weights, it’s a slowly and hard-won power built through slow and steady work on technique.
‘slow and steady wins the race’.
I often encourage my guitar pupils to SLOW DOWN, and to BREAK THINGS DOWN. The worst way to practice a piece of music is to attempt to blast through it from start to finish at full speed. One day soon, maybe. But most of us need to put in lots of careful work to get to that stage. To use another expression, ‘walk before you run’.
Rather than just running around Rivelin for an hour, hitting every hill up or down, we were taken to specific points, and asked to do short, measured repetitions. Repetition. The old chestnut. The ‘nitty gritty’ of the workshop involved focused repetitions running up and down very short but very tricky hills. Only about 20 seconds of running each time, with plenty of recovery time between goes. This allowed us to keep our energy up, to maintain focus, and to practice our form and technique. The odd times where I tried to ‘push it’ or got tired, I could feel the technique, and everything else, slipping, along with my feet.
This real-life and very physical illustration of the importance of technique brought home to me the importance of structured and methodical practice. It’s great fun tearing through my current ‘project’ a Bach Fugue (the focus of a great Julian Bream masterclass here), from start to finish. If you’re prepared to tolerate the several shonky notes and missed chords along the way, you can enjoy the complete musicality of the piece.
But, I know from experience that the ONLY way to master the piece, to really ‘get’ the trickier passages, is to break it down and practice it slowly. It can be boring, it can seem backwards, over simplified, but it works. Four bars max, often just two, or one bar. Play at half speed, and repeat. And repeat, with plenty of breaks in between to allow your fingers and brain to recharge. And don’t be in a hurry to speed it up. You will learn what you need to learn just as well at this painstaking speed.
John Williams, one of the greatest if not the greatest Classical Guitarists, spent much of his early practice time being supervised by his dad. That’s a bit much isn’t it? A bit weird? I have a mental image of his old fella sitting there, staring at his fingers, grimacing. But the reason he did it? To make sure young John wasn’t sat their for hours on end practicing mistakes. Practising slowly, and with care and attention, helps us avoid practising ourselves into bad habits. When you feel things becoming easy, like you’re floating through your exercise in an out-of-body state, then are you ready to take it forward.
What I found after both of the sessions was that strange new parts of my legs had started aching. But I was glad, because it demonstrates that I’d been put through it’s paces in a new and challenging ways. Progress had been made.
Now every time I stumble on to the hills, I do so with a new sense of purpose, with the mantra of our APC coaches fresh in my mind. I know that if I keep striving for good form, and take my time to build the strength I need, some time in the future, I’ll enjoy running in a way I couldn’t have imagined a few years ago.
For more information about the Accelerate Performance Centre, and their excellent Sheffield shop, Accelerate Store, visit: