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    The Tai Chi of guitar playing

    Posted in: Guitar in general by Ingo on October 18, 2009


    taichiRecently my son started to practice Tai Chi – an internal Chinese martial art that is often practiced for health reasons. Tai Chi is originally a sophisticated martial art in which you learn to control and relax your mind and your body and to win over the hard with softness this way. It is not really about fighting these days but rather about practicing ultimate principles that enable you to reach a certain state of body and mind in which you can do unbelievable things, fighting is just one of these.

    I find that applying the very same techniques and principles to guitar playing makes a lot of sense. Maybe it is not ideal for all music styles but surely for the Mark Knopfler style. It even seems to me that it is not possible to play this way without these principles. So what are these principles in detail and how do they refer to playing the guitar for this style?

    Relaxation

    One key element is relaxation. The whole body should be as relaxed as possible. And the mind, too. Your muscles become loose which allows extremely fast movements. If you want to play fast guitar licks this will not work with hard and cramped muscles – at least it will not sound the way you want it to, and playing with a lot of muscle tension will get you in trouble like becoming RSI.

    Concentration

    A relaxed mind allows you to concentrate. In return, keeping up a high level of concentration will reduce your muscle tension. After some time doing so the mind becomes extremely calm and clear. It should be no question how this will benefit for playing ultra-accurate, percussive rhythms or super-fluid casual licks like Mark Knopfler is famous for.

    Yin and yang

    yin yang pictureYou might have heard about these: the contrast behind all aspects of life that is the cause of all changes and all movements. It is an easy but at the same time very complex philosophy. In short: nothing can exist without its counterpart, without the opposite. Applying to music and guitar playing would mean for example to leave adequate pauses between the notes you play, or contrasting loud notes  with very soft,  low  notes  (just listen to the legendary first solo of Sultans of Swing). Everything in a perfect guitar solo must be in harmony with everything else, everything must be balanced. Bass notes require a contrast of treble notes,  short staccato licks should be contrasted with sustaining singing notes, and so on. I think you get the idea.

    While these were really ultimate principles, the next ones are rather concrete details:

    Body posture

    The body can only reach its full potential when all parts of the body are exactly in the position they are really meant to be. Only this way relaxation is possible. This means the spine should be almost straight with only minimal pressure on your intervertebral discs. The shoulder must be relaxed. If you keep them slightly lifted (like we almost all do most of the time), your arm muscles cannot operate properly. All false positions of any body parts will block the flow of energy through your body.

    Breathing

    The breath should be deep and even. Try to “breathe into your belly”, not into your chest. Especially try to avoid holding the breath while playing, and to inhale quickly in breaks between licks. Ideally breathing should be natural and not be interrupted when trying to do something comlicated, like playing a special riff or lick. Probably you never payed attention to this aspect. Watch yourself and find out what you do under which circumstances.

    Practicing slowly

    In Tai Chi complex movements (which are normally whole-body movements) are practised extremly slow – like in slow motion. This way you will become aware of any wrong details like a too high muscle tension, lifted shoulders, or anything else that does not feel perfect. Do the same when practicing guitar: slow it down extremely and try to pay attention to **all details at the same time** – something you are noromally not able to when doing the same thing at a higher speed.

    I am convinced that applying these rules will help you a lot to become a better guitar playing – it is not possible to overcome certain limits without them. And what seems to work for fighting or guitar playing also will work for nearly all things in our lives. So applying these principles for all things in life makes a lot of sense – you will not only be able to do things you cannot do otherwise, you will also feel much better and happier. And what can be more important than this?

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    I recently recorded an acoustic guitar for a cover version of Brothers in Arms. I used two different microphones – a large diaphragm condensor  Audio Technica AT 4050 near the bridge and a small diaphragm condenser Schoeps CM 64 over the neck. I had seen pictures showing Mark using a similar approach from a radio promo recording he did a few years back.

    I recorded both mics to separate channels of a stereo track into Cubase. When hearing the result I was pleased with the broad stereo sound and left it as it was. Of course you can mix both sources with different panning and volumes to be much more versatile.

    I made a sound file for you for demonstration, you can hear the mix of both microphones but also both individually (in the mix and alone) to judge about their different sound capabilities. The old (1962) Schoeps is a great mic. It has a tube circuit and a nice treble boost for that warm and crisp high end. Of course there are many other great ways to position two microphones, this being just one.

    The guitar is a 1976 Gibson MK 81 by the way. It will be featured in a future article.

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    I recently saw a few threads in numerous forums about the guitar sound of So far away on Dire Straits’ fifth album, Brothers in Arms. People speculated that there was a flanger, a delay, a chorus, or other effects involved to create the rather unusual sound of the lead guitar.

    And unusual it is in fact. This is because it is not really a guitar what you hear – instead it is the Synclavier by NED – a synthesizer – that is triggered by a special controler guitar.

    The Synclaviar

    I don’t want to go into too many details about the Snclavier since there are enough articles in the web about it, including this Wikipedia article. In short, it was a very complex – and thus expensive – system that was similar to the Fairchild synth. Due to the high price – I heard Knopfler payed something like 300,000 $ US in the mid-eighties for his Synclavier – both systems were mainly used in big studios or among top-selling artists. The Synclavier was not only a synthesizer – which means a device that generates sounds combining basic waveforms – but also one of the first high-quality samplers – a device that generates sounds from recorded (=sampled) waveforms of real instruments or real sounds or noises.

    It was one of the first high-end workstations that allowed you to produce an entire album with almost nothing else. No wonder that it was used on some of Mark Knopfler’s soundtracks in the 80ies, like Princess Bride or Last Exit to Broklyn. I remember reading that even one of the guitars on Princess Bride was sampled (most guitars here were really played of course).

    Synclavier II from the mid eighties

    Synclavier II from the mid eighties

    The Pensa controler guitar

    To trigger the sounds from a synth with a guitar you need a special guitar – one that sends MIDI commands or some other similar electric signals. For this purpose Mark Knopfler had a special guitar build by Rudy Pensa’s Music Stop. It had a Stratocaster shape and lots of switches and knobs. As it also had two conventional pick-ups, you could play it as normal guitar, or blend the guitar sound with the synth sounds.

    Here are some pictures showing this guitar. I have no idea what this guitar was used for on the concerts these were taken from, at least to my knowledge it was never used live for So Far Away which was played on the red Schecter Strat on stage in 1985.

    Mark Knopfler with Bob Dylan who was a guest on the Brothers in ARms tour in Australia, 1986

    Mark Knopfler with Bob Dylan who was a guest on the Brothers in Arms tour in Australia, 1986

    synthguitar 003a
    synthguitar 004

    And finally the official video of So far away:

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