Friday, July 20, 2007

Guitar with a begging bowl

I've been learning how to play the guitar for a few months now. At first, I used a book called Mel Bay's Complete Method for Modern Guitar. It is a huge tome. If you are unfamiliar with sheet music, it is considered remarkable progress when you can cover three pages a week. So at 320 pages, it is enough material for me to practice for many years. However, the book has one major flaw: there is no recording to listen to. When I started learning, that was a big failing. I needed to hear if I was playing the music correctly. Since I had no teacher, I was responsible for checking whether I was correct, and this was hard to do if I didn't know what correct was meant to be.

So I did what any logical person would do: Buy yet another tome. (Actually, I also joined guitar classes) The new tome is called Hal Leonard's Guitar Method, the Complete Edition. This is a set of three separate books, and it comes with three CDs with full recordings of nearly all the music written in the book. It is an impressive book, and the CDs help immensely in figuring out right from wrong.

But there's something wrong.

Both books are filled with what is best described as crap music. One of the songs that I'm working on, for instance, is completely lacking in imagination and power. This song is partly religious, so I don't want to name it. Let's just call it "Juju in the valley", and save everyone a lot of grief. So Juju in the Valley is a crap song. The kind that nearly everyone can agree is not music any more than clanging pots and pans is music. It is not something I enjoy playing, though I enjoy the sense of accomplishment after I can play it. My wife heard that song, and her first comment was, "This song is best played with a begging bowl in front of you." For those of you who have not suffered in Bombay local trains, this is a reference to the tonal quality of the beggars in the trains. And this song was being played on a top dollar, electric guitar, with the best possible strings money could buy (I'm cheap, but so are the best possible strings). Oh, and the amp is killer too.

No wonder it doesn't pay to learn music. In one his comedy routines, Eddie Izzard made fun of learning music when he was a child. As a child, his incentive in learning music was to get popular, and be a heart throb among women. So understandably, he was looking to play sexy songs. Instead, he was forced to play complete rubbish, kind of like the mess I'm in. I can't possibly imagine playing "Juju in the valley" in polite company. I'd be ridiculed. That is an understatement. I'd probably be shot.

It could be that such songs are the only things that new guitarists (like me) can play. It is possible, but I highly doubt it. The opening riff to "Wish you were here" by Pink Floyd is absolutely super easy. As a matter of fact, one of the students in my guitar class picked it up all by himself. So did I. It is easier than this particular piece I'm trying. It has more impact, and more class. It is certainly within the "sexy songs" category. A lot of rock music has repeating chord patterns. They're easy. Ask any budding guitarist, and he'll tell you the three chords G C D, and how much damage you can do to listeners ears if you just know those three. There's even a video online by a group that plays just three chords, and covers a variety of early and recent rock.

So why aren't there common three chord songs in my guitar book? Why must I search online for guitar tabs to simple songs? More importantly, why aren't simple tunes in my book? Simple tunes of the "earn me groupies" variety?

The point boils down to copyright, as always. The composers own the tunes, and you cannot reproduce them without their permission. Years ago, when Eric Clapton played riffs originally played by Robert Johnson, he was celebrated. Today, any other musician will be persecuted. Just as well that Eric Clapton made his music in the 70s. Today he'd be a homeless bum. If you've heard any Robert Johnson, you can tell that the two artists are very different. Buying one Eric Clapton album doesn't mean you won't buy any by Robert Johnson. Blues and Jazz grew out of a collaborative art form. Since not many recordings were present in the early days of jazz (till Okey records, and other companies started selling jazz), the musicians played live. They revelled in playing together. Louis Armstrong played often with other musicians, a lot of whom copied his ideas, and improved them. To be fair, Louis himself built on a strong tradition of jazz that started in New Orleans, and he was building on the work of others. It was completely normal for him to play what someone else did, but embellish it in his own way. This sold records of both artists. Without this, there is no art. There is no jazz.

Today, the existing laws prohibit even sharing the information required to play a song. I cannot tell you how Eric Clapton played wonderful tonight. I cannot tell you the entire lyrics. For those who remember OLGA, the OnLine Guitar Archive, this is how you play wonderful tonight. Notice how the lyrics are missing. If the lyrics were there, this site would be ordered to take them down. Sheet music? Forget it. You have to pay for that. So a new guitarist like me tries, and tries, till there is some resemblance between my playing and Clapton's. Of course, it is is easy to play the song like he plays. The magic is in playing it exactly as he played it, or even playing it better. Without sheet music, a new musician finds it very hard to play the song exactly. Sheet music is available, for a discount price of about $25 per musician per book. And sheet music covers the full songs. I've gone through books of sheet music of guitar legends. It is worthwhile only to an established musician. For students, entire songs are difficult and time consuming. Even the Hal Leonard "Blues" book is good, but it only starts making sense after you've got a concept of sixteenth notes. So you are forced to plow through three books of Juju in his damn valley. The only reason guitar instruction books don't put bits and pieces of good songs is because those songs have composers who still have rights on the songs. Even after years and years of anyone wanting to play the song in public. There are no Louis Armstrong cover bands, but it is still illegal to learn from his playing. Even if a person takes the time to write down the sheet music and puts it up online, it would be illegal.

Recently, the composer's guild forced a guitar teacher to take down videos he had posted online. In these videos, he showed you how to play music by some current bands. The videos were available free of charge, and the teacher saw this as a way of boosting his clientele. He also sold DVDs with this material, so his videos could be interpreted as commercial. Even so, the loss to budding guitarists has been great. The videos were simple, honest, and had a very personal touch that is missing in other productions. A comparison to a similar video created by a true artist is instructive. I once watched a video (on legal DVD, thank you) by the guitarist Buddy Guy, where he explained some of his chops. The instructional quality was near zero. It was impossible to follow, it came with no sheet music, and the entire DVD was worthless to a new musician. I learnt no new guitar tricks from it. Compared to that, these amateur videos made by a guitar teacher were crisp, and clear. Even though there wasn't sheet music, he covered simple topics, and got you to play "sexy songs". Eddie would have been proud. Eddie would have continued learning to play.

For the full answer, I'd recommend you read Larry Lessig's absolutely brilliant book: Free Culture. No matter what you think you know about the music business, or the RIAA, please read the book. The entire book is available for download (in many languages) at the link in this paragraph.

With the recent extension of copyright terms, the world is moving to a place where we cannot learn how Louis Armstrong played a lot of his music. We cannot record a guitar solo on top of his trumpet. He learnt from people around him, and built on their work. We cannot do the same. Even though with a $400 computer, I can record my guitar tunes alongside his trumpet, I cannot share it with you. Even if I put a 30 second Louis Armstrong trumpet solo alongside my guitar playing, I cannot put it up online. Go figure.

The copyright extension was only in the US. India still has a 60 year copyright term, which is noteworthy. But through WIPO and WTO, even Indians will be denied access to ancient music. Really, Louis Armstrong is ancient music. Even Americans don't care about it. So why not allow new musicians to learn from this? Where's the harm?

There are some glimmers of hope, like the Internet Archive. But we all need to contribute to it. We need to make sure that we don't just turn into passive consumers of music. In as much as learning music should be fun, and about creating new types of sounds, we should encourage it. We can learn from Jazz, and Blues, and play it alongside Indian music and Indian instruments.

And as Aruna Subramanian and Neeru Paharia, show in their lovely song, we're better if we are allowed to.