Review: Kid Andersen’s Blues Refinery

Full Disclosure: I am not a paid blogger, but TrueFire has exchanged access to their lessons to me for a review per month.

My apologies for the long break in lesson reviews. I last left off discussing Oz Noy’s incredibly hip take on the blues by getting a non-traditional sound. Today I get to discuss Kid Andersen’s incredibly hip take on the blues by getting a very traditional sound. Specifically Kid Adersen is most known for playing with Rick Estrin and the Nightcats, when the recently departed Little Charlie Baty retired and the band changed it’s name from Little Charlie and the Nightcats. Huge shoes to fill, but his command of the “West Coast Swing Blues” style of guitar in the vein of Little Charlie and Hollywood Fats landed the gig, and is on full display in Kid Andersen’s Blues Refinery.

Kid has a fine sense of humor and an incredibly useful mix of straight concepts like building your melodies off chord shapes, techniques like bending and raking, and some easy to remember tricks based off of solid concepts that he calls “shortcuts to sophistication.” – As a theory fan, I had to stop a few times and go, oh yeah that’s based on… that works and is totally a cool take on that. No spoilers, but that section alone is worth the price of admission.

But there is the biggest section of taking those ideas and concepts, plus being able to see his licks tabbed out, on display over a Boogaloo, Box Shuffle, Slow Minor, etc. I don’t know what else to say other than this another unique collection of great lessons for blues guitar playing.

Review Bonus: Oz Noy’s Twisted Guitar: Blues Soloing

Full Disclosure: I am not a paid blogger, but TrueFire does exchange access to their lessons to me for a review per month.

Oh my, if this is Twisted, just keep turning that key. I’ve heard some of Oz Noy’s work before, but here in Twisted Guitar: Blues Soloing he’s keeping one foot in the traditions of blues and blues rock, and in the other going into more modern jazz dissonance, creating licks that start where fans of SRV or Albert Collins will find familiar, take a left turn that make you think you’ve careened off the rails, then land right back… as if to say “what, is something wrong?” or “I meant to do that.” And with the explanations given, yes, he totally meant to do that, and is telling you how you can, too.

The presentation is a great approach, too. Oz will show three different licks individually, usually with related approaches, developing to a complete solo composed with the licks in context; and then a followup improvised solo twisting the ideas further and just adding more Oz Noy insanity. For example: one of the tracks, Ice Man starts with a lick inspired by Albert collins in A minor Pentatonic, but then demonstrates taking it up a half step and then resolving.  The second example has a Bb7 arpeggio to step out, and the third steps outside with major triads ascending by fourths. Then you have a complete composed solo with those licks. And then an improvised one tabbed out.

Tons of tricks for the blues guitarist trying to break away from boring. I need to spend some more time with this one.

Review: Josh Smith’s Blue Highways

Full Disclosure: I am not a paid blogger, but TrueFire does exchange access to their lessons to me for a review per month.

What to say about Josh Smith’s Blue Highways… Josh is a masterful player that I was not previously aware of. Once again, the meat of this masterclass is concepts, and Josh serves up many of the same things that I would give to intermediate and above students; and ones that I use on the bandstand at every opportunity and explains them very well. The fact that his (stellar) results using the same concepts are so different from mine speaks to the individuality of the blues as a genre and improvised music.

Which then leads to his examples, and then a second section where he’s improvising solos over a minor funk, shuffle, slow blues, etc. And oo-ee, his licks are worth studying and adding to your own bag.

Great explanations of musical approaches, playing “through” changes and applying the melodic minor to the blues, and great solo demonstrations. This course is definitely worth a look for advancing blues improvisors.

Reviews: Write Your First Song by Robbie Calvo and Song Factory: Birth of a Song by Ellis Paul

Full Disclosure: I am not a paid blogger, but TrueFire does exchange access to their lessons to me for a review per month.

Personal note: Whoo boy, it’s been a long time since I wrote. I took a forced sabbatical from playing guitar due to carpal tunnel surgery in both hands. Technically I could have written reviews, but I feel that they are completely useless unless I have a full on “hands on” experience with them. 

Songwriting… I have done a few songs, I even have one award on my wall for doing some, but I’ve been in a creative block for quite a while. I decided to see if going back to basics can help, and if these new Truefire lessons can help.

Robbie Calvo’s Write Your First Song is the first course I should have looked at. This is the most foundational of the two. Robbie does an excellent job of covering all of the foundations by defining the absolute basics of music, some basic stylistic elements, and basic parts like verse and chorus. From there he goes into some interesting building blocks with “sweet notes” (chord tones, keeping it to C major for this course) lyric writing, etc.

If you know very little about the basic building blocks of what makes a song, but want to write them, this is an excellent starting point. Robbie has this course laid out well and explains things in an easygoing manner.

Ellis Paul’s Song Factory: Birth of a Song is much less a basic structure series, and more like a creative writing workshop and idea generator. While it does also spend some time describing some of the nuts and bolts, the real strengths of this course come from the start where he explains starting journals and setting up a space for writing, to the exercises  for each individual approach such as writing using books or movies, or starting from your instruments.

The information ON songwriting is great, the approaches should be helpful to nearly anyone getting started or getting better at the craft of songwriting. The lessons are great, Ellis seems like a great guy to meet… and (*sigh*) I really can’t stand listening to Mr. Paul’s songs. They are not at all anything I want to listen to, in fact I bounced out laughing at one point because of I story I’d heard about another great singer songwriter; Harry Chapin, writer of great songs like “Cat’s in the Cradle, “Taxi”, and even “30,000 Pounds of Bananas” (great if you listen to the live versions with the alternate endings) but… I remember hearing a story about Rolling Stone Magazine having a Harry Chapin Singer Songwriter award, for awful songwriting. This was due to a song he wrote called “Sniper” which was basically inspired by the UT Austin gunman and told from the perspective of the killer. According to the story I heard they kept this award annual until Mr. Chapin’s untimely death.

Early on, Mr. Paul gives an example of a song he wrote from the perspective of a shooter…

I threw up my hands and walked away for a bit. This is all personal taste. There are a lot of musicians I don’t particularly enjoy listening to, that I still respect their ability, success, and connection to their audience. Ellis Paul, is a fantastic teacher on the subject of songwriting, I just don’t want to listen to his songs, entirely on me. I still have a great set of songwriting exercises to work through.

Review: Jon Herington’s Ear IQ: Soloing Strategies

Full Disclosure: I am not a paid blogger, but TrueFire does exchange access to their lessons to me for a review per month.

Jon Herington has been working with Donald Fagen and Steely Dan since the late 90’s on top of his own projects… so if you haven’t hard that name before, consider some of the other monsters previously working for that group. (Derringer, Carlton, Baxter, etc. etc.) What makes this course worthwhile, is that even though these are 10 different solos entirely tabbed out, and have some fantastic licks, the lessons aren’t about that; he’s presenting an idea like considering the character of the song, ending well, singing your lines, etc. by describing the situation and how he’s applying each of these approaches before playing the solo to show the result.

If you are looking for licks, though, the updated and uptempo’d solo on “Bodhisattva” for the “Flash” demonstration is… *really impressive*. But even if you don’t pick up a single lick from this course, applying the techniques discussed to your own improvisation are all useful approaches for making great solos.

Review: Sean McGowan’s Pentatonic Palettes for Jazz Guitar

Full Disclosure: I am not a paid blogger, but TrueFire does exchange access to their lessons to me for a review per month.

Yup, it’s another course on pentatonic scales, this time offered by jazz guitarist Sean McGowan, and taking some creative steps to applying these ideas to more traditional sounding jazz. The courses start into the familiar territory with pentatonic scales, move quickly into more advanced applications like chromatic sidestepping, and then start applying more unconventional five note scales like the minor six/Kumoi scale, the dominant pentatonic, and the Hirajoshi. I’m still working in this section and am having fun.

From there it breaks into some form exercises with ii – V – Is, to applying some standard changes like for “Autumn Leaves.”

There were a few moments during the breakdowns were I was asking “Yes, that’s a nice sounding lick, Sean, but what are you applying that from?” Overall, though, this is a great set of concepts, and Sean lays them out very clearly.

Review: Henry Johnson’s Jazz Expressions

Full Disclosure: I am not a paid blogger, but TrueFire does exchange access to their lessons to me for a review per month.

Oh man, this is a solid block of lessons aimed straight for what I think of as the core of jazz guitar. I did not have to know his history and reputation or look at Henry’s bio to know that he’s heavily influenced by Wes Montgomery, early George Benson, and Kenny Burrell. TrueFire’s Jazz Expressions lesson pack is an old school, master explains some of the things a jazz player needs to know approach to teaching the craft. It’s more a demonstration and playing tips than theory intensive study of jazz guitar.

That said, there is some significant theory behind what he’s demonstrating, it’s just not presented as that. The biggest example being he demonstrates how to cover the neck by what he calls Areas of Activity. The theory not discussed is he’s doing the drop 2 chord voicings in major, minor, and dominant in their four inversions, and playing melodies based on the related scale fingering in that area… he’s just not saying things like drop 2 voicing and CAGED patterns, he’s more interested in phrases and melodies.

The only thing that then suffers from this approach is that the transcriptions often stop before he gets to the more interesting ideas. I understand transcriptions are time consuming, but when Henry takes a chorus each of the areas, and the transcription stops at two choruses, there are more ideas being covered up the neck. A couple of Areas of Activity being demonstrated are being neglected this way.

Perhaps it’s better for the student to do some ear training, but there are times I wished I had the Tab.

After covering practical ideas, he then demonstrates the ideas through some jazz blues and rhythm changes examples. As a blues guy who wishes he sounds better on standards… I’m still struggling with rhythm changes. I’m still not meeting my own standards, so I’m still working on this (and a few other teachers approaches, like Cheryl Bailey’s studies, also on TrueFire.)

Overall, Henry Johnson’s Jazz Expressions is an outstanding, no nonsense approach to old school Wes style jazz guitar.

Review: Johnny Hiland’s Ten Gallon Guitar: Intros, Outros & Turnarounds

Full Disclosure: I am not a paid blogger, but TrueFire does exchange access to their lessons to me for a review per month.

I will never love country music as much as Johnny Hiland, but that’s OK… I don’t think anyone can. This is only one reason why he is arguably the best country guitar player alive. His easygoing “aw shucks” delivery in teaching his material makes things entertaining while I’m swearing at my own fingers struggles trying to keep up with the music on my screen. While Ten Gallon Guitar: Intros, Outros & Turnarounds has a nice collection of licks, this is probably the best in his series so far in covering how to use them in context. Him explaining that any random singer in Nashville might jump up on the stage and suggest songs he hasn’t heard makes for a point of departure for bandstand survival in his world. The simple explanation of the Nashville number system in terms of the progression alone might be worth the price of admission. (While anyone should know what a twelve bar blues is, knowing what “14, 11, 44, 11, 45, 15” means was most illuminating for me) The lesson plan breaks down how to start, end, and make fills on ten different grooves, making for thirty great extended licks, but lots of context on how they’re used.

And even though my fingers can barely keep up with him, I still can’t keep from smiling listening to him talk with such a pure enthusiasm and joy for his subject. He makes me want to keep going, when in similar situations I might just give up in frustration. Johnny Hiland is a great teacher and a monster player. If you have any interest in country guitar at all, check out his lessons.

Review: David Wallimann’s Guitar DNA: Pentatonics

Full Disclosure: I am not a paid blogger, but TrueFire does exchange access to their lessons to me for a review per month.

Ah, Pentatonics: Guitar DNA is an apt title, especially on this subject of the series. Pentatonics are easy to learn, play, and visualize on guitar and make an excellent starting point to learning improvisation for many styles of music. David Walliman is an excellent fusion player and lines up some absolutely essential concepts, getting into some advanced territory, including connecting chromatic material between the notes in the “boxes”. Even though there are some tasty licks all tabbed out, this is mostly presenting concepts, which I look at as a big plus, and overall I would recommend this both to students learning to break out of the one or two standard boxes of pentatonics, but for intermediate t advanced folks looking to apply ideas in new ways…

But I have one major complaint. (Warning: big music geek/teacher rant ahead. It’s OK to  skip down a paragraph. You have been warned.) Back when I reviewed Jeff Sheetz’s Street Theory for Guitarists, I gave him big praise for getting into the seven fundamental modes without getting into what I call “guitarists bad modal theory”, which can be especially prevalent in the way many younger jazzers teach. It causes some supreme confusion when later getting into simple concepts like jazz ii-V-Is. (“Dorian to mixolydian to…” NO! It’s a simple MAJOR SCALE chord progression.) The seven fundamental modes aren’t just the same scale with a different root, it still also has to function within the harmonic context. Teaching scales as “modes” based on what note is under your first or second finger on the sixth string of the grid is a confusing no-no both for teaching scale grids, and for teaching modal theory. It goes double for when you show which three Pentatonic grids fit into the three major and minor modes (You are not playing three separate major “modes” of pentatonics within the Ionian mode. You are fleshing out the major scale with three seperate Pentatonic scales. Hint: teach this by scale degree, not by naming modes completely out of context.) Seriously, I know there are some of you who will disagree, but this is Bad. This is B-aaayad music theory. What I find really bad is that Mr. Walliman knows modes well enough that when he does get around to jamming over them he’s using progressions that work for the correct modes (i.e. the correct context at that point) that it’s baffling he’s using out of context modes in place of naming grids or scale degrees.

Other than my major pet peeve about modal theory… if you can avoid the confusion related to that, there is a wealth of useful material here.

Review: Frank Vignola’s Jazzin’ the Blues Vol. 1 & Vol.2

Full Disclosure: I am not a paid blogger, but TrueFire does exchange access to their lessons to me for a review per month.

I am known around town as a blues player, and I’ve been to music school and studied under some greats; so I love injecting some jazz traits to my electric blues solos. So, I wanted to take a look at Frank Vignola’s Jazzin’ the Blues Vol.1 for this month’s review. While I was working with it during the month, Jazzing the Blues Vol.2 was released. So, let’s take a look at both volumes. 

As with nearly all TrueFire lesson groups, you get video of Frank playing his examples and tab. These lessons feature Soundslice, so that a student can set a variable speed, follow the tab playback which is really handy for playing along with fast or tricky passages. You see it exactly as played from half speed to faster than performed.

This is a focus on adding “jazzy” ideas to blues lead lines on guitar. Frank Vignola is a master player and has a basic format for both volumes: focus on one idea at a time and play two different choruses of solos that illustrate that idea. Each is melodic and state the idea well, and don’t get particularly challenging to play for an intermediate player until getting into Volume 2. 

My only complaint to his approach and teaching style in these volumes is his speaking style can come across as a grade school instructor telling a student that “very important new word” when going to each new idea, like major 2nds, or the Super Locrian or whole tone scale; but if he is approaching these concepts as new, there are no additional materials demonstrating what a major 2nd is and where it is on the neck, or any grids or descriptions of new scales. There is some description of the ideas during the Breakdown sections, but seem explained as though the player who previously hears the words “Super Locrian scale” then should know how that concept relates to the licks being demonstrated. 

If the student has a strong grasp of theory, they may chuckle at the vocal delivery but get a wealth of knowledge and some great ideas for playing. A student  not familiar with the concepts should have access to some sort of supplemental information covering the concepts to fully “get” the information presented. 

The concepts in Volume 1 cover using the major 6th, the diminished scale, the bebop scale, the whole tone scale, octaves, the major 2nd, the Mixolydian mode, and the Super Locrian mode. Volume 2 covers the major 9, (this time relating to the other chord tones and within each chord, opposed to the major 2nd in Vol.1) the chromatic scale, double stops, the Dorian mode, implying the ii V, neighboring tones, and the harmonic minor scale. If the student gets the concepts beyond just the riffs… this is a BIG bag of tricks for blues playing.

The only other tiny quibble is that the intro invokes names like Robben Ford, Larry Carlton, and Oz Noy… yet these licks don’t invoke the playing of any of them, more stock “Soul Jazz” riffs. THIS IS NOT A BAD THING… especially if you can internalize the concepts more than the licks from the lesson plan (and make your own sound)… which again raises my stressing for having better access to the concepts for folks not familiar.

So, if I’m in any way critical, it’s only because there’s really, really good stuff here to be had.