Jazz virtuoso Lionel Loueke joins us in contemplating who we’d put at the helm while making the album of a lifetime. Plus, musical obsessions!
Q: If you could make an album with any producer, alive or dead, who would it be?
Lionel Loueke — Guest Picker
Photo by Elan Mehler
A: Quincy Jones. He’s done so much. He’s someone I’d love to work with just to get a different experience. I love his work but the main one for me is Michael Jackson’s Thriller. I know him personally: I went to Morocco with him when he was presenting the Global Gumbo All Stars, and I also worked with him in the studio when I was playing with Herbie Hancock on his new project. Quincy wasn’t producing, Terrace Martin was the producer, but it was so good to be in the studio with all those great musicians.
Photo by Sam Santos
What I really like about Quincy is how he detects talent. Producing is one thing, but he finds the right musicians who have something unique or different to say. I mean, Ray Charles … he’s produced so many greats in all genres.
Lionel Loueke's Current Obsession:
Right now, my obsession is all about the drums. I feel like I present myself as being a frustrated drummer, because I play a lot of percussion on the guitar and I started as a percussion player, so it’s always been part of what I do. I’m not looking to be a drummer, I just feel really connected to any percussion instrument, and I feel drums will help me go even deeper in my musical multitasking.
I think it was Miles Davis who said that every musician should try to play drums. And I truly believe that because with the drums you have four parts of your body to synchronize: legs, arms, feet, hands. When it comes to rhythmically thinking, drums are something every musician should try.
I just talked to my friend, drummer Ferenc Nemeth, who has been playing in my band for 20 years, about buying a drum kit because I don’t have one. Right now, I have drumsticks and I’m beating on everything [laughing].
Matt Dunn — Reader of the Month
A: I would probably pick Brian Eno/Daniel Lanois specifically because of their work on The Unforgettable Fire album with U2. While I’m mostly into punk/garage rock, I was always so blown away by early U2 records and their approach to songwriting. I would do anything to write my own versions of “Bad” or “A Sort of Homecoming” with their guidance and production.
U̲2 - The Unforgettable Fire CD2 Deluxe (Full Album)
Matt Dunn's Current Obsession:
Bad Religion. Despite being a punk fan my whole life, I was always more into English and East Coast bands. I recently tried to expand my world to include those SoCal punk bands and I cannot find anyone better than them. “Streets of America,” “American Jesus,” and “We’re Only Gonna Die” are on repeat.
Ted Drozdowski — Senior Editor
A: It’s a toss between T Bone Burnett and Daniel Lanois.
I love the low sound T Bone perfected with his own The True False Identity and Alison Krauss/Robert Plant’s Raising Sand. But I’m crazy about how Lanois brings the ambient playbook to roots music, producing great albums for Dylan, Emmylou Harris, the Nevilles, and more.
Ted Drozdowski's Current Obsession:
I’m in the early stages of working on a feature-length film incorporating songs, storytelling, psychedelic lighting, original artwork, and aerial dance. How could I not be obsessed about it?
Nick Millevoi — Associate Editor
A: The Flaming Lips and Dave Fridmann. I can’t begin to predict how my music and their vision would really come together, and that’s what I love about the idea of working with those guys. Every Lips album and side project is completely immersive and multidimensional. It would be a dream to tap into their whole technicolor vibe and see how they’d handle sounds, arrangements, and writing firsthand.
Flaming Lips - See the Leaves
Nick Millevoi's Current Obsession:
Eighties drum machines. I’m deep in the throes of an obsession: I recently bought an Alesis HR-16 and the sounds are so sick—and so ’80s! —but it has opened up a potential gear wormhole.
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An essential skill that’s often overlooked.
• Learn how to add interest by “missing” strums.
• Create patterns influenced by drumbeats.
• Understand how to systematically improve your rhythm playing.
Strumming great rhythm guitar is a core skill. It’s never too soon—or too late—to get a solid groove going. With a few simple chord shapes, you can be up and running rather quickly. (You can even tune your guitar’s open strings to a chord and simply strum the open strings.) Players like Neil Young, Kurt Cobain, Noel Gallagher, and Jimmy Page all have an individualized approach to simple strums. Let’s dig in and tighten up our rhythm chops.
These music examples use a variety of basic chords and progressions, but if they’re still too challenging, don’t give up. Pick any chords you like and try them. Listen carefully to the recorded examples so that you can pick up details about the sounds we’re going for. Strumming is typically done with a pick, so I’ll recommend that approach. There are certainly strummed styles that use fingers, such as the elegant and sophisticated flamenco techniques and the unique and personal approaches of people like Jack Johnson or Tommy Emmanuel. Explore those but do try for some practice time with the pick.
Let’s begin with some basic symbols, terms, and notation systems.
We have downstrokes and upstrokes. A downstroke means the pick moves toward the floor. In this case it strikes the lowest strings first. Upstrokes are simply the reverse; you start by striking the higher strings first.
Let’s start by simply strumming an E minor chord with downstrokes (Ex. 1). We’ll strum once per beat. You can see the musical notation shows quarter-notes in 4/4 time. The downstroke symbol is used to remind you of the strum direction. Hold your pick loosely enough to pass quickly through the strings. We want the illusion that all the strings are being struck at the same time. Of course, the notes are staggered, but it shouldn’t sound that way. Strive for an “instant” sound.
A light grip of the pick and a swift strum through the strings gives us a rhythmically precise and tight sound.
Does your strum sound like that? Great! If it doesn’t, it might be because your strum is a drawn-out motion that results in a harp-like effect, which lacks crispness and rhythmic precision. Save this for the last chord of a song or for an isolated effect. Not much groove happening in this version.
Neil Young - Cortez The Killer (Acoustic)
Upstrokes are usually reserved for upbeats. Thus, it’s common to incorporate eighth-notes with up strokes. A rule of thumb: Use downstrokes on the downbeats (1, 2, 3, 4) and upstrokes on the “and” or each beat. If you are tapping your foot to the beat, the pick direction will match your foot’s movement. In Ex. 2 you’ll see the rhythmic notation with pick strokes.
It’s reasonable to assume that you must play all the strings with each stroke. While that’s possible, it’s not so common. Typically, the downstrokes favor the lower strings and the upstrokes favor the high strings. You don’t have to be super accurate. The beauty of this is that a bit of randomness makes it sound more human and more musical. Listen to Ex. 3 for the differences between this version and Ex. 2.
Nirvana - About A Girl (MTV Unplugged)
Let’s do another example (Ex. 4), but this time with a chord change. Notice that the very last chord before the change is simply a few open strings. No one can change chords instantaneously, so it’s common to “cheat” like this: Use the last upstroke as your time to change chords. If you listen closely to some favorite songs, you might be surprised to hear how often this happens.
Once the basic movements are comfortable, it’s time to add rhythmic variation (Ex. 5). Since we’ve been playing constant eighth-notes, we’ll now remove a strum—variety can be created via omission. Try this by “missing” the strings. In other words, keep your strum movement going, still up and down, matching the beat—just avoid the strings for a “miss.” Remember downstrokes are on the beat, upstrokes for the “ands.”
Here’s another common rhythm, where we are “missing” one more strum (Ex. 6). Listen for which strings are struck with the downstroke and the upstroke.
Noel Gallagher “Wonderwall” Live on the Stern Show (1997)
The previous two examples omit the sound of a couple of upstrokes, but we can also omit a downstroke (Ex. 7). This will create a syncopated rhythm. Syncopation is created by having an upstroke that is not followed by a downstroke. This helps to accent different parts of the measure.
It’s time to notice details about musical stresses—what we call accents. A typical acoustic groove often mimics the feel of a good drumbeat. The low strings can act like a bass drum and the high strings can act like the snare drum. Basic drum beats often have bass drum on beats 1 and 3 and snare drum on 2 and 4. Ex. 8 is a simple way to adapt that to the guitar. Accents can be achieved by playing a certain chord louder or by striking more notes in a given chord. Adding some upbeats to this approach is like adding a ride cymbal or hi-hat to the groove.
We can accent certain strokes and create interesting rhythms that way—even when there’s a seemingly bland rhythm, as in Ex. 9. Variety and interest are achieved through dynamics (musical volume) and accents. We can create a vibrant and intensely varied part that is anything but mechanical. The long wedge symbol is a crescendo, which means to gradually get louder. The symbols that look like “greater than” are accents.
Ex. 10 is a variant of Ex. 9. Instead of eighth-notes (two strums per beat), we have 16th-notes (four strums per beat). The tempo is moderately slow, but it’s still quite busy. Remember, you don’t have to strike all the strings of the chord. Downstrokes favor low strings and upstrokes favor high strings. As with the previous example, an interesting rhythm is created via accents.
Once you’re comfortable with your strums, it’s time to add rests. Rests are silences. We can use rests to add variety, since it can be tedious to have endless sound that’s not contrasted by silence. Rests are typically “played” by landing the pinky side of your hand on the strings. No worries if the rest makes a click sound, that can even be desirable. Try Ex. 11 for a simple exercise with rests.
Sometimes the rest gets replaced with a percussive sound. Think of it like a “crash” into the strings: Your palm lands on the strings and the pick hits right after. It’s fine for the pick to hit just a couple of strings. This is a good way to mimic certain songs. Check out Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.” There’s no guitar on that recording but you can emulate the percussion by playing Ex. 12.
Ex. 13 is a good generic rock groove. I think of this as something akin to a basic drumbeat. This strum is useful whenever you need a driving groove.
Being able to do a steady, eighth-note strum with a good feel and stamina takes time, so be patient! Practicing with a metronome or drum beat (there’s tons of smart phone apps and loops on YouTube) is great for developing your skills, so definitely work that in. Have fun!
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