Guitar Theory

For the last while, as I’ve carved out time to learn more guitar here and there (believe me, this is tough as it is), I’ve felt drawn to the need to learn more about theory. By theory, I mean musical theory specific to navigating guitar, which is quite concrete and not as “theoretical” as it may sound to anyone unaccustomed to the term. In other words, from a structural perspective, how might a guitarist understand the greater relationship between strings, frets, notes, chords and modes? The hope, not unlike consulting a grimoire, was that this might allow me a key to understanding music, structurally and compositionally, and that it might make my relationship with guitar easier.

The reality is that learning theory, for me at least, is a slog. My guitar teacher used to avoid getting into the weeds of teaching theory because he felt that it was too easy for the student to lose interest — and he’s not wrong! Not unlike mathematics, it’s dry, with rules that are seemingly arbitrary. And an entire lexicon (“Here’s a Lydian riff in F”) that, unless you are truly dedicated to learning, so easily leaks from your ears the minute you put your guitar down. And yet, while my teacher would say this in one breath it wouldn’t stop him from commenting on the arcane ways in which whatever song we were playing was structured. Why, I thought, are you dangling this thing in front of me while informing me that it was hard to teach? I thought “feel” was hard to teach.

And to make my frustration solidified, this year in particular I happened to have at least two people — both of them musicians and one of them a guitar instructor — upon hearing that I was studying theory, simply ask: why? They seemed sort of dumbfounded, to be honest. Why not, was the implication, just learn [song] and have a good time? Theory was useful if I was hoping to do arrangements, a friend told me, but otherwise wouldn’t have many practical applications for the average musician who simply wanted to play.

I took this to heart, and put my theory-driven interests aside. The book I’d bought and was woodsheding my way through, Lee Nichols’ Music Theory for Guitarists, was left untouched on my desk, as I sought to learn guitar from an organic perspective — that is, by figuring out songs on the fretboard and generally relying on my curiosity. But when I went back to a YouTube video spotlighting the work of blues guitarist Willie Johnson recently, specifically his work on the Howlin’ Wolf track Mr. Highway Man (which is honestly one of the best guitar solos ever), I was once again confronted with theory-talk. “If you can play the G9th chords and the G6th chords…”and I’m like SHUT UP! I DON’T KNOW WHAT THOSE EVEN ARE!

And here’s perhaps the crux of my frustration, where I feel ground down between those who casually attempt to explain/demonstrate what a musician is doing via theory (because, honestly, why not?) and those who downplay this approach in favour of, say, finding the tabs for whatever it is you’re trying to figure out and going from there. I think it’s also complicated by the fact that it’s easy (for some) to talk about a musician’s approach from a theory perspective, which ends up making it sound, from my perspective at least, as if everyone who has come before them (and me) MUST have known theory. Right? Willie Johnson OBVIOUSLY must’ve been a keen observer of music theory. As well as Link Wray. And Pat Hare. And hey, maybe they were. I don’t mean to suggest that they shouldn’t be afforded that benefit of the doubt, but I guess where I’m coming from is that it’s easy, after the fact, when someone is describing a musician’s playing through the lens of theory, to assume that the musician in question would’ve approached it the same way (theory-driven), as opposed to something more organic (“Hey, I like how this chord shape sounds when we’re playing an uptempo boogie.”).

Anyways, welcome to the way my brain works, and the crap I quietly wrestle with. I hope I’m not the only one who struggles with things like this.


Charmed, by Σtella

This came out a couple of years ago and it seems to be seeping into the playlists of places I frequent. It’s got a great vibe: atmospheric and haunting, yet sexy and dance-able.


Psycho: Marion & Sam, by The Lord

So, yeah, typing in that title felt a little awkward, so let me unpack this. The artist in question (The Lord) is Greg Anderson, who’s better known for his monstrous doom metal outfit sunn O))). This is a solo project that takes inspiration from the works of film composer Bernard Herrmann. You might not be familiar with sunn 0))), but you’ve probably heard Herrmann’s scores for Taxi Driver, North by Northwest and Citizen Kane. Thus the title of the album “Worship,” as Anderson takes inspiration from Herrmann’s work. The piece I’ve shared is from a theme taken from the soundtrack to Psycho.

Not for all ears, yes, but I love the intensity of it!


February update

self-portrait walking in Little Portugal, Toronto

It’s been a busy time in these parts. Working on the short story I mentioned last post, working on a Canada Council grant (because why not), as well as working-working.

My day job has been affected by the economic downturn since about September of last year. September is typically a busier time for therapists — end of summer/vacation, anxiety about returning to school, etc — but for me it was the opposite. And it was more or less that way until January, where it continues to be patchy. This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if it weren’t that I have an office lease and a number of other regular professional expenses. I’m getting by ok enough, but the lack of predictability can be stressful. The thing I also remind myself of is that psychotherapists are typically downstream from whatever’s happening in society, so it’s no surprise the economic crunch that so many are experiencing now should visit my doorstep.

February was…fun? Keeping the momentum going from seeing Quebec band La Sécurité in late January at The Monarch here in town, earlier this month my partner and I hopped on a train to Montreal, where I haven’t been in nearly a decade, in order to see one of my favourite current acts, Sweeping Promises, play at La Sala Rossa (note: they are not Quebecois but hail from Kansas). I was not let down. Super-impressed with their energy and their songs translated to a live venue easily. Strangely, having heard all my adult life about how tame Toronto audiences can be, I was surprised to see the Montreal crowd’s energy was so restrained…and here I was, in my early 50s and one of the more enthusiastic people in the audience. Needless to say, it was great to be in Montreal and I was struck by how little damage the pandemic lockdowns did to their bars, restaurants and live venues. Otherwise, I pushed myself to get out and socialize more this month, which I’m thankful for, even though I’m a little more introverted than others, as it was good to connect with old and new friends.

If I do get some grant money I’d like to see about booking a return to the artist’s retreat run by the Pouch Cove Foundation in Newfoundland. It really is a stunning place. If I have a burning frustration with the airline oligopoly in this country it’s that it’s cheaper for me to fly to Las Vegas (3,619km) or Vancouver (3, than St. John’s (2,686km), and believe me I would take St. John’s any day over those and many other destinations (okay, only between the months of May and October).


Dialogue, by Froth

Their album, Duress, is a cracker that sees them combining their love of shoegaze with some tuneful Wilco-inspired guitar licks. Whereas their previous work could lean a little too heavily towards a clear Swervedriver influence, this album stands on its own. Highly recommended.


December Update

It’s been a year, and I feel that the air is clearing. If that sounds vague, let’s just say that 2023 has been a challenge. Not like 2022, which was quite calamitous by comparison, but certainly from the perspective of world politics and (closer to home) the health of my business, it’s been a tough one. The economy is hard and a lot of people (myself included) are being a lot more financially conscious than ever.

After some super-constructive feedback I’ve been intently focused on revising Book Three, which has been tough. You’ve probably heard the term “kill your darlings” before, in regards to the sorts of sacrifices an author inevitably has to make during revisions; well, this last revision has led to a small cemetery of darlings. And necessarily so, since I attempted to cram a lot into the second half of this novel, and the result was the lack of a sense of a singular theme/conflict as opposed to a barrage of them. That said, I think it’s in a good place now, and I’ve put the manuscript in a proverbial drawer in order for it to sit for a while, so that I can come back to it with a fresh pair of eyes. It’s still a solid story, and I’m very happy with the process of deciding what it was I wanted to, well, say — sounds straight forward, but it’s harder than it seems, especially when you have a lot of things you want to reflect on. Hoping to turn this over to my agent in the spring of 2024. It’s also nice to not be staring at the same project, so that I can (god forbid) consider other writing projects (short stories, essays) I’ve either neglected or temporarily abandoned.

Musically, I’ve been blessed to have come upon a wide array of artists who are new to me: Sweeping Promises, Water From Your Eyes and Froth most recently stand out.

Tomorrow, for the first time in two years, I’m taking part in the Holiday 10k (formerly the Tannenbaum 10k), and the weather is going to be perfect (a little wet, but above zero), so I’m going to quietly focus on a personal best time. Don’t tell anyone.

photo of my racing bib, showing my name and racer number

Blue by Sweeping Promises

Just happened upon this band, and pretty much everything they’re doing (and have done) is damn good.


Separated at Birth: A Devil in the Woods, by The Gun Club; Lucifer Over Lancashire, by The Fall

I’d like to think these two songs came into being independently. And technically I can tell you that they did. A Devil in the Woods (The Gun Club) in the US, and Lucifer Over Lancashire (The Fall) in the UK, the latter circa 1986(?),  the former in 1982. The thing is, they sound tremendously similar, and I can’t help think whether Mark E. Smith et co might have found inspiration in The Gun Club track. But wouldn’t it be incredible if they were hashed out in isolation from one another? There’s really no downside to this discussion because for music fans they’re both post-punk crackers.


(note: I typically prefer sharing Bandcamp links as it’s more generous to its artists, but these two tracks are not available there.)


Conduit by Jon McKiel

I had the occasion to see Jon McKiel earlier this summer at The Baby G. He’s a solid songwriter and musician. This album in particular is a little more muscular whereas the follow-up (his latest) is a little more tuneful. Currently touring the U.K., which is great to see.


Totally Wired

Well over five years ago, I was having a hard time with wired earbuds. The pair that came with my phone at the time had a sort-of butterfly wing that held each earbud securely in place, but when they slowly deteriorated I found it nearly impossible to find a pair that used the same (or similar mechanism). My ears are a little strange, it seems.

Lo and behold, during my search I came across a display for Bose and their new-ish SoundSport model. They were wireless. They sounded decent enough in the store, and after some thought I picked up a pair. The clincher were the wingtips each earbud had, which made their fit more or less guaranteed. Note: these were not what are now somewhat pedantically called “True Wireless” as there was a flimsy harness wire which connected them (this turned out to be handy, given that if I had to remove an earbud I could let it drop and it would simply hang over my shoulder). They sounded good and were comfortable, which is really all I wanted.

I listen to music a lot; and when I’m not listening to music on my phone I’m listening to streaming radio stations like BBC 6 Music. I’m not an audiophile, but I like decently balanced sound. Whenever I read about “high fidelity wireless earbuds” I struggle with the dissonance that a) Bluetooth (how wireless earbuds connect) is an inherently lossy format to begin with, and b) what exactly are you listening to that requires peerless sound quality? If I’m commuting to work and listening to compressed MP3s of GBV, what exactly am I gaining from a $400 pair of earbuds?

The Bose SoundSport buds simply worked, which is all I wanted. And then they began to fall apart. After 1.5yrs the rubber covering on the selection buttons was disintegrating. It became harder and harder to pause what I was listening to (I had to press with the edge of my fingernail to do this after a while). After stretching it out as long as I could, a total of 2.5yrs, I began to (begrudgingly) look for a replacement. I started looking at “True Wireless” models from various brands, and they were all hideously expensive and/or maintained the same hard-to-fit-in-Matt’s-ear bud shape. In a moment of “what the hell, eh” I decided to order a pair of Google Pixel Buds. They were comparatively inexpensive and I figured it was as good an introduction to “True Wireless” as I was going to get.

Out of the box, the Pixel Buds did their job. They fit about as well as the Bose and came with a sleek egg-like charger case which didn’t take up much space. I also appreciated that I could, especially for client phone calls, optionally only have one bud in my ear (the idea of having both of my ears plugged on a phone call is not attractive as I get a form of claustrophobia from things like that). And then, after a year, they too began to fall apart. The charger case began to crack along the edges, and then each bud’s charging ability began to lessen, up to the point where I couldn’t use them for 50-minute client sessions. It became a bit of a joke, though I didn’t appreciate the cost and inconvenience of having to contemplate replacing them in less time than I was able to stretch out my pair of Bose previously. When I looked up help from Google the answer was either a version of “did you turn it on and off again?” and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. I know this is the way things are: disposability. I don’t like it, but I when it comes to what you get for those low prices I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. But goddamnit, can’t something last more than 2 years without falling apart??

Let’s take a moment to made room for my biggest bugbear about wireless earbuds (True and not): radio frequency (RF) interference. The idea that is sold to us about wireless/Bluetooth devices is that we are liberated from our phones etc, but little ink is spilled (don’t get me started on online product reviews) about RF interference. Yes, within the confines of my office, Bluetooth technology presents no immediate shortfalls. However, when I’m walking down an urban sidewalk, whatever I’m listening to begins to cut out, with the sort of maddening infrequency that makes the whole point of listening to music futile. The worst culprit is Spadina Avenue, where my office is, naturally. I can neither listen to music nor conduct phone calls walking on Spadina owing to what I can only imagine are high levels of interruptive wifi signals (Spadina is a tech company ghetto after all).

I finally decided to look for a good-fitting pair of wired earbuds, which made it clear, if it wasn’t already, that True Wireless Earbuds Are Everywhere Now. And here I was, looking for something unintentionally retro. I looked far and wide, even at used products — this is how desperate I was. Eventually, scratching at the bottom of a Google search, I saw a pair of JBL earbuds for sale at Staples. Sleek and black, and made for workouts, they were also on the verge of being a legacy model at this point. They were also $29.

It’s been a week with them so far and I have no complaints, aside from navigating the wires occasionally. They sound great (no lossy format), they fit decently, I don’t have to worry about charging them throughout the day, and there’s no need to fear RF interference.

All is well.