In Memoriam: Bobby Womack


Bobby Womack, one of the most successful soul singer/songwriters, has died at the age of 70. In a career that lasted almost 60 years, it is fair to say that the man lived life to the full. Not only was he known as a singer in his own right, but he also penned many famous tunes for other people, as well as playing guitar as a session musician. His soundtrack for the film Across 100th Street (1972) showed serious longevity as it was later used by directors in other movies, notably Quentin Tarantino in Jackie Brown.

The legendary Sam Cooke brought Womack to the attention of the wider world when he signed him to his own label, and a song Womack had written for his own band (The Valentions), It’s All Over Now, was covered by the Rolling Stones, bringing them their first hit. Womack was a member of Cooke’s band until Cooke’s early death, as well as working for Ray Charles from 65-68 as a musician. He famously left Charles after he claimed that the blind musician had a tendency to want to pilot his own planes. Prodigious as a session musician, he played guitar for many illustrious stars, amongst them Elvis Presley. In the early 70’s solo releases saw him top the charts in his own right, though in the late 70’s his career stuttered. The early 80s saw another re-birth of his career, with two solo albums, The Poet I & II, being critical and commercial success.

His private life was colourful to say the least. After Sam Cooke had passed away at the early age of 33. Womack married Cooke’s widow a mere three months later. This caused serious ructions within the wider families, and he was even booed at gigs. Things did not settle down, however, as 6 years later his wife found him in bed with her then 18 year old daughter, Linda. It gets more complicated. Linda later married Bobby’s brother, Cecil Womack, and they formed the famous Womack & Womack. In 1976 he re-married, but his four month old son with his new wife sadly died at the age of just 4 months, reigniting a cocaine habit that had blight most of his adulthood. There were more releases in the 90’s, but in 2010 a feature on the fourth Gorillaz album once again brought him wider attention.


Why am I struggling to learn the bass clef as a pianist?


Have you been playing the piano for a while? Maybe a month, or maybe 12 months? Are you finding that the bass clef, and therefore anything to do with the left hand is a drag? Well, you are in good company, as pretty much anyone who learns to play the piano struggles with this. The main reason for this is that on the piano you have to read two clefs at the same time, and that makes it rather difficult. Most other instruments (apart from the organ, or harp, for example) have just one clef, and you just have to read one note at a time. On piano we have to read several notes on the one clef (treble clef), and then the same again on a completely different clef, which is kinda similar, but everything is out compared to the treble clef. Jeez, enough to give anyone the heebie geebies. So it’s just not easy, and that part we just can’t change.


The other thing you may notice with the piano is that you never seem to have enough eyes to be able to look at:

1) Your fingers

2) The treble clef

3) The bass clef

Ideally you’d be a chameleon with 3 eyes that could train each eye on each section separately, but that sadly can’t happen. So what’s the trick? Well there is no trick, but several strategies you can use to make it work:

1) Learn the damned bass clef well. There is no way around it, you have got to know it. Practice just the left hand for maybe 10 min at the start of every practice session. Also, and this has worked wonders of many of my students, go to:

… and go to Exercises and there you can set yourself exercise to read bass clef notes. Where this service is really handy is that you can specify the range you want to test yourself at – and this is where you can learn quickly. Start off with a really small range, say C below middle C up to G, no more, and no sharps or flats. Do that for a few days and you’ll know those 5 notes really well. Then just add in one more extra note, so expand the range from C to A. Do that for a few days, and so on. Gradually increase the range, and within a few weeks you’ll find that you can suddenly read the bass clef so much better.

2) Look ahead when playing. This is so important when you play the piano, as there is so much going on, you need to look ahead a bit to know what is coming, otherwise you can find yourself surprised by the number of notes in the next bar.

3) There is no rule of whether you should look at the music, or just your fingers. Anyone who tells you should look at the music all the time, or conversely look at your fingers all the time, is talking rubbish. Look at what you feel you need to look at at that point in time – your brain will tell you which needs most attention, and if you need to move your hands, your brain will tell you to look at them, so do that!

4) Part-memorise the left hand. There is usually less going on in the left hand, so it’s a good idea to part-memorise it, so what you pick up with your peripheral vision, or the odd glance onto the bass clef will suffice to be able to play the notes.

5) It’s ok to memorise everything. Yep, if you don’t need the music anymore, then don’t use it. Actors don’t go on stage with a script, do they?

6) Get someone to teach you the rudiments of functional harmony – that way you will actually understand what the music is doing, so rather than reading loads of dots, that actually have no meaning, you will understand why this chord is there, and what chord it is, and why it is followed by this other chord, and that the melody in the right hand is mostly just the chord tones you are playing in the left hand etc etc.

Follow some of the above, and piano playing might become a less stressful undertaking. After all, we want you to love playing the piano.




Which is the best instrument to learn first: Acoustic Guitar, Electric Guitar or Bass Guitar?


I Am often asked which instrument is easiest to learn. There isn’t really a straight answer for that, as it always depends how far you want to take your playing. Bass guitar is fairly easy to get going on, but some people cannot develop enough strength in their hands to press down the rather fat strings. On top of that if, you want to play like jazz legend Jaco Pastorius, then playing bass guitar is very difficult. By contract playing the double bass is very hard right from the start, as there are no frets (so you have no gauge of where to place your fingers, and for a long time you will play out of tune), and the strings are even longer and harder to press down.

Amongst the woodwind family, the alto and tenor saxophones are the easiest. Though soprano and sopranino saxophones are quite tricky.

A common question is which out of acoustic guitar, electric guitar or bass guitar students should choose. Well the choice between bass guitar or guitar is basically down to what you want to play. If you feel like laying down low grooves, playing very repetitive lines and being the foundation of the piece, then bass guitar is for you. Always try one out first, to see if your hands are big and strong enough to fret the notes. Your fingers will hurt for quite a few months when you first start practicing, but this does ease after a while as you build up pads/callouses under the skin of your fingers.

One of the fun things about playing bass guitar is that you can play along with your favourite pop/rock recordings quite quickly, and it can be rather good fun. As a random example, the bass parts for any U2 songs are really easy to learn. One thing you have to consider if you buy a bass is that you will also need an amplifier if you want any kind of volume. It is perfectly possible to practice on your own however without plugging into an amp.

If however, you would rather play guitar riffs, or strum chords andsing along, then bass guitar is not for you.
So it is then a question of whether to get an electric guitar, a steel string acoustic or nylon string acoustic. If your thing is rock or metal, then electric is the obvious choice, if you are more indie, then either, but for folk and ballads you’d want an acoustic. With an acoustic you are also free and easy, as you don’t need an amp to carry around. You can learn several easy open chord shapes on the guitar quite quickly and then strum along to quite a number of tunes. To learn all major and minor chords on the guitars is, however, not so easy as some chord shapes are quite painful to execute. Having said that, even some of the best know pop/rock guitarists don’t know all chord shapes (jazz, flamenco and classical players would, however), and that hasn’t stopped them from making great music. BB King, the legenrday Blues guitarist, famously asked the band members of U2 if anyone can play chords, as “I’m no good with chords”.

You can of course use and electric guitar, plug it into and amp, add no distortion (so have a clean sound) and strum chords and sing along – but it does not have the same sound as an acoustic.

So if you go for an acoustic guitar it’s a question of whether you want a nylon string or a steel string. Steel string guitars have that country sound to them, and can also (if they have an output) be plugged into an amp. Nylon strings have a softer, more flamenco/classcial guitar like sound. Out of the two nylon string guitars are easier to play, as the strings are less abrasive, and chord shapes easier to hold.

If however, you want to play rock guitar or metal riffs, then you will need to get an electric. Out of the 3 guitar types, electric is by far the most forgiving guitar to play, as the strings can be thinner, and there is less problem with not fretting notes 100% correctly and therefore getting irritating buzzing. So if you want the easiest guitar to ply, choose an electric, which in theory also gives you the most options.

Once you have decided on your guitar type, there is then the small issue of which model to buy. Let the fun begin!



Piano Buying Guide



Buying your first piano or keyboard can be a daunting task. You want to buy a decent instrument, but not pay to much. You also probably don’t know if you (or your child) are really going to like playing, so investing in an expensive instrument could be potentially costly. So here are a few tips to hopefully make the process easier.

1.) You could start on a keyboard first. There are pretty decent keyboards to be had for the £ 200-300 mark. Now these won’t have weighted keys, but they are all touch-sensitive these days, so it gives you a certain feel of realism. Weighted keys are electronic keyboard keys that include a mechanism inside the keyboard that makes it feel more like a real piano. When you hit a key on an upright piano, wood, metal felt and springs all start moving, and that gives it a certain touch, which you don’t get from a keyboard that has no weighted keys.

2.) Yamaha instruments are a safe bet. And that is true for any instrument. Yamaha pianos are ubiquitous. After the 2nd World War, as more and more French, Germand and English piano makers closed down, or had been destroyed during the war, Yamaha started cornering the market in student instruments in a big way. This means that 2nd hand they are also a good bet. The downside with Yamaha pianos is that on the whole they are very bright (not something I personally like), though there are some examples out there that aren’t. Their grand pianos don’t suffer from this exaggerated brightness.

3.) Calvinovas (By Yamana) are also a safe bet. As with upright panos, the digital keyboard market is dominated by Yamaha, and they are genuinely good instruments. On the whole they have weighted keys.

4.) If you have  bit more money to spend, buy a Roland keyboard. If Yamaha are the VW’s of digital pianos (keyboards), then Roland are the BMW’s. They are just a few notches up in quality. But you obviously pay more as well.

5.) As with cars, be careful if buying 2nd hand (piano). It is hard to know what to look for when buying 2nd hand, and I’ve seen some reconditioned pianos sold at dealer’s shops that I wouldn’t touch with a barge-pole. On the whole large dealers can be trusted, but the mark-up can be huge. With pianos if there is a crack in the sound-board, you can still play it , but repairs are costly, as the whole piano has to be taken apart. The analogy in car terms I guess would be a head gasket going. The thing is it is hard for a layman to spot a piano for a cracked sound-baord. Best thing is the find a piano teacher in your area, ask him for advice/pay him to come along to look at the instrument  you are interested in.

6.) Keyboards are easier to buy 2nd hand. As it is easier to work out if something doesn’t work!

7.) Having said all that it makes a lot more sense to buy a piano 2nd hand. As new ones are way more expensive.

8.) Rent to buy schemes can be very useful. Many music-shops offer so called rent to buy schemes. With these you rent the instrument for a set period, say 6 months, and if you decide you don’t want to continue, you hand it back to the shop. If however, you decide you like the instrument, the previous 6 months rental are taken as the first payment. This scheme works well for both customers and retailers.

9.) A good piano will hold its value. So even if you decide not to keep it, you will lose little if you sell (assuming you bought 2nd hand)

10.) At the very least you have to spend £2,000 for a half-decent 2nd hand piano. Ouch.


Don’t Give Up – Peter Gabriel duets with Dolly Parton



I recently watched an excellent documentary about the making of Peter Gabriel’s 1986 album “So” on the BBC iPlayer, rich with interesting facts and curious anecdotes, some of which I wanted to share.

“So” was a bit of a departure for Gabriel. Up to that point in his career he had been hugely successful, but probably admired more for his artistry, song-wrtiting craft and musicianship, but not known for his chart-topping prowess. That and occasional oddness. In fairness, he probably never aimed for chart topping hits, not even with “So”, but the album broadened his appeal hugely. The track listing is as follows:

“Red Rain”
“Don’t Give Up” (featuring Kate Bush)
“That Voice Again”
“In Your Eyes” (featuring Youssou N’Dour)
“Mercy Street”
“Big Time”
“We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)”
“This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds)” (featuring Laurie Anderson)


Of those Red Rain, Sledghammer, Don’t Give Up, In Your Eyes, Mercy Street and Big Time can all be regarded as hits or classic tracks that have stood the test of time. Whilst Mercy Street and In Your Eyes could be considered to be more like the usual finely crated songs expected from Gabriel, Big Time and Sledgehammer in particular gained Gabriel a new audience. Sledgehammer came with a then groundbreaking video, shot in stop motion, which involved days of gruelling shoots, where Gabriel had to remain incredibly still in front of the camera, whilst floating clouds where painted on his face and all kinds of bits of plasticine smashed into or went through his head whilst he mouthed the lyrics to the song. I believe the video is still the most played ever video on MTV. It also came at a time when MTV was riding a wave, drawing a new audience of young kids and teens – I myself can remember watching Sledgehammer and being fascinated. By today’s standards the animation looks somewhat clumsy, but at the time it was ground-breaking.

For me, one of the most curious facts about “So”, is that Gabriel originally wanted Dolly Parton to sing the duet in “Don’t Give Up”. He contacted her management, but they never got back to him – it is assumed that they didn’t know who he was, which is slightly astounding. I guess these days a quick internet search could have dispelled any notion that this guy from Great Britain was an amateur. It is however really hard for me to imagine Parton singing on the song – I’m very glad her management never got back to him.

A testament to the longevity of “So” is that it comes in at 14 in the Rolling Stone 100 Best Albums of The Eighties list.


Music Slowed Down


Ever wondered what it would sound like if you slowed down a song massively? Those of you who grew up with record players will already know the answer, as on the good ol’ turntables you could play around with the speed the record played back at. Some record players only let you play at 33 or 45 rpm, for long playing records and singles respectively, bu my dad had a Lenco which had a temposlider that you could set to pretty much any speed. So it was really good fun to make Bing Crosby sound like Mickey Mouse, by playing White Christmas much faster than it should be. Or indeed to slow the Glenn Miller Orchestra down to sound like they were playing too low, from a long way down in a cave (when slowed down).

And therein lies the problem – of you slow down a recording the pitch drops. If you speed it up, the pitch goes up and singers, even the very best, just sound like Mickey Mouse.

Three years ago someone called Paul posted a video of Justin Bieber’s U Smile slowed down by 800%. The effect is a rather mesmerising and ethereal. Like angels singing (and I am not Bieber fan).

What was different here is that the pitch stayed the same, but without any strange graininess coming into the audio file – the usual problem when you slow down audio in a daw (digital audio workstation, like Cubase or Logic).

The software is actually freely available:

There is also a similar product available, which lets you freeze, at the pouch of a button, any audio that is playing back. It is rather aptly called Time Freezer.

Here is a video of it in action:

Good fun!




How often should I have my piano tuned?


I often get asked by my piano students how often they should have their piano tuned.

There is a very easy answer to that: twice a year, ideally when the seasons change (from warm to cold and vice versa). The reason being that when winter comes, the central heating comes on. This means that your house will usually have a much drier air to it, which will affect the piano. At the end of winter, once the heating comes off, the windows are opened, the central heating is switched off, sunlight might hit the piano and slightly moister air might surround the piano – and the wood will absorb this moisture.

Pianos are mostly made of wood, metal and felt, and the wood in particular will absorb and release moisture with changes in humidity and temperature. This will affect the tuning of the piano, and these changes mostly occur as the seasons change. So as a rule of thumb, October/November and then again around May are usually good times to call your tuner. He will normally offer to call you every 6 months to arrange an appointment anyway.

If you don’t have your piano tuned at these intervals the tuning of the piano will start dropping. This can create real problems if it is left too long, as the tuner can then not immediately tune it up to what is called concert pitch, as the added extra tension would make the piano frame crack. Unlike a guitar or violin or double bass, there is a huge amount of pressure on piano strings, something like 20 tons on the whole (iron) frame. This means that tuning up all strings would increase the overall pressure on the frame by too much, and the frame would break. Violins, guitars, bass guitars, etc are not made of metal, so cannot have such high string tension, and you can easily detune a guitar and tune it back up again without any worries, but this cannot be done with a piano.

I have also seen it happen that a piano has been left untuned for too many years, and the tuner simply cannot get it back up to concert pitch, as it has been left too long.

Unlike with the aforementioned violins or guitars, you cannot tune a piano yourself. You need specialist wrenches and other equipment (and piano strings aren’t freely available in shops), but more importantly it is quite a skilled and difficult job to tune a piano, and this takes several years of training.

If you play your piano a lot, and hit the keys hard, you may need to have the piano tuned more often, and if you are recording it, you will need to have the piano tuned just before the recording. In recording studios and concert halls pianos are tuned before every performance/recording, and I have seen it happen that during a jazz festival the tuner came on stage between acts to tweak the piano a little. Not a lot of fun to listen to.







The importance of having a good guitar set-up


When you buy your first guitar or bass guitar, you might think that it should work perfectly straight out of the box. Well, unfortunately this is not the case. Guitars and bass guitars generally need setting up, so they play as well as they can, staying in tune, not causing the player unnecessary agro through action that is too high (or too low) with no buzzing strings. As a huge number of people buy their first instrument on-line, there is no shop to take the guitar to in case you want to ask any questions about your new axe. As a rule of thumb it is always best to go to a real guitar shop and try out various instruments – even if you can barely play – don’t worry about embarrassing yourself, you can always ask an assistant to play the guitars to you and explain the differences, or take a friend along who can play.


Anyway, as guitars are made of wood and some metal, they are likely to be affected by changes in humidity and temperature. On top of that, if you did buy your guitar on-line, it has probably sat in a warehouse (unheated) for a length of time, prior to which it was probably in a container for several weeks traversing the seven seas from South East Asia to your home country – so the poor instrument needs to settle in and feel at home.

Once you have bought your guitar and had it a few days it is well worth finding a guitar technician or luthier who, for a fee or roughly £45, will set up your guitar perfectly for you, making it playable and fun to own. A luthier will go over a number of things, most notably the truss rod adjustment, intonation and saddle height.


The truss rod is a metal rod that runs through the neck (under the fretboard of the guitar, and it allows you to bend the neck up or down. Below is a useful diagram illustrating this.















When you first unpack your guitar it could be in any of the 4 states above, and though you can adjust this yourself, it is best to let a professional do this, as you can potentially break your guitar. Once this has been set (this may take several goes, as the guitar gets used to the changed tension), usually the  the saddle height (for the action, i.e. how far away the strings are from the freeboard) and intonation (whether the guitar is in tune on the higher frets) are set. Should your guiatr re-align itself once you get it home, your luthier would norammly be happy to have it back for a small re-adjustment withouth further charge.

A luthier would also  be able to advise you on string gauges, as these can have a dramatic impact on your playing, especially as a beginner. Bizarrely acoustic steel string guitars usually come out of the factory with thick strings on, as these make the guitar sound fatter in the shop. But thicker strings are much harder to play, and as acoustic guitars are harder to play than electrics, you don’t really want to make your life any more difficult than it needs to be, especially if you are a beginner. Conversely electirc guitars usually ship with very thin strings, as this make them easy to play. However, these strings might be too thin for you, and they can be hard to play in tune, as just a little too much pressure on the strings from your fretting hand can make them go sharp.

One last thing to note is that acoustic guitars are harder to set up, as they require filing if the action needs adjusting at the bridge – this is always best left to a professional, as if you file away too much, you’ll need to get a new bridge. Electric guitars thankfully can be set up with screwdrivers and allen keys.



Learning A New Instrument

I often get asked which instruments are easiest and hardest to learn. It’s a tricky question and the best way to answer this is: every instrument has a different learning curve. Now what do I mean by “learning curve”. Well some instruments are easy to get started on, but then get tricky when you try playing harder pieces. On others it is hard just to make a sound on, so that instrument is difficult from the start and has a steep learning curve that then gets shallower. There are several aspects to learning an instruments and whether you are better at one or another might decide which one is more suitable for you. These elements might be broken down int to these categories:


Note creation



Physical Strength


Let’s take two very different instruments: the piano and trumpet and compare these. On the piano the note creation is very easy – if you dropped your cat on the keys, the piano would make a sound – if you drop your cat on a trumpet the trumpet would,however not make any sound, but there would be a howl of protest from your cat. Making a note on a trumpet is very hard. You need to press your lips together to form the smallest gap and force out a narrow and strong current of wind. I never managed to produce a note on the trumpet, but strangely played trombone for several months, where I did not struggle as much. This has to do with the fat that the lip tension on trombone (certainly in the lower registers) is much looser than with a  trumpet.


Students first struggle terribly with making a note on the trumpet, and increasing the range to the upper register is a very slow and hard process. So you need to build up a lot of strength in your lips, as well as your buttocks and diaphragm, to be able to build up enough body tension to create a sound. The piano certainly does require you to build up strength in your hands and arms, but nothing like the trumpet. So looking at these aspects alone, you might think the piano is easier. But not so fast.


When it comes to co-ordination the trumpet is relatively easy – lip strength and the three valves have to be combined – so no huge feat in co-ordination. On piano however you have to learn to move fingers independently, something that at first feels very unnatural, and additional you will have to learn to independently coordinate three limbs (two ams and your right foot for pedalling).


When it comes to note reading the piano gets very tricky. On the trumpet you are only concerned with one note at a time, as well as only having to read one clef (treble clef). On the piano you have to read two clefs (treble and bass) and read a multitude of notes all at the same time – piano sheet music for that very reason tends to look quite scary, especially to beginners, who struggle to read all the information quickly enough.
I have learnt a number of instruments, some to a higher standard, some to a lesser, and every instrument has its own areas of difficulty. It is often stated that bass guitar is an easier instrument to learn, and generally I have to concur, though it depends on how far you want to take your bass playing. If you want to be able to play walking bass lines, slap bass, fretless and play like Jaco Pastorious (one of the best bass players ever), then the bass is a very difficult instrument. If, however, you want to play along to U2 songs, you should be up and running pretty quickly. Yes, you need to build up “pads” or scar tissue under your fingers and you need to build up strength in your hand to be able to press down the strings properly, but it is not anything like as hard as playing a double bass, where the distances are much bigger, there are no frets to tell you where to put your fingers, and the strings are much fatter and hard to play (if you are plucking them jazz style).


Of all the wind instruments the alto and tenor sax are certainly two of the easier options (the smaller cousin in the saxophone family, the soprano, however is pretty tricky to play). Note production on the sax is fairly easy, and the instrument is generally pretty in tune. The same cannot be said about the clarinet – though note production is not that hard, the instrument goes very flat at the top of the range, and mastering this is very tricky.




What about the guitar? Well, as I have noticed, you need different sorts of pads under your fingers compared to the bass guitar as the higher strings are very thin and end to cut into your skin more. Bass guitar strings are more abrasive by contrast. You need to build up a lot of strength in your hand and wrist to be able to play some of the trickier chords on guitar. The iinteresting thing though is that there are generally 3 types of guitars out there: electric, nylon acoustic and steel string acoustic. Out of these the electric is by far the easiest, so if you choose to start playing the guitar, I would start with an electric. Steel string is by far the hardest as it requires the most strength in your wrist/fingers to play the notes correctly.

So what about the drum kit? Note production is easy and there are few notes to read (there is no entirely universal system for drum notation though a few are used). All of that is true, but you have to co-ordinate 4 limbs independently, and that is very tough indeed.


Sometimes when people choose to start playing an instrument they simply choose the wrong instrument for them. They give up, thinking they are not musical, but they simply may have just chosen the wrong instrument for them.


Ronnie Scott’s to stream Wynton Marslis concert for free

The famous London jazz club Ronnie Scott’s has announced that it will be streaming Wynton Marsalis’ gig on Tuesday the 23rd of July (from 10.30 pm) live from its website – for free!

In recent times there has been a fair bit of innovation with regards to how live performances can be experienced by audiences. No longer is it necessary to buy tickets for some events, but live concerts, theatre shows and even opera performances have been broadcast live into cinemas. This obviously opens up new revenue streams for venues, who are hard pressed in these economic times, as often needed financial support from the state has dwindled. The state owned National Theatre of England started the trend in 2009 when it broadcast a production of Phèdre starring Hellen Mirren to 50 cinemas across the UK, with audiences having to pay £10 entry. The experiment was so successful it has continued to this day, under the banner of NT Live.

The Royal Opera house runs a similar scheme, with its Live Cinema Season.

A number of Pop/Rock bands have also jumped onto the bandwagon, and even the Victoria and Albert’s David Bowie exhibition was broadcast into cinemras, with viewers being taken through the exhibition by curators and special guests.

Ronnies Scott’s has now followed suit, though their stream of famous New Orleans trumpeter Wynton Maralis is actually free. As tickets for his gigs at Ronnies’ have alrready sold out, it will also be the only way you’ll be able to watch the gigs. More details can be found on Ronnie’s website.