The ‘Strike a Chord’ Blog™ RSS
by Mark Clemente

The ‘Strike a Chord’ Blog™ relays stories about the art of the guitar to inform and inspire players of all styles.
It’s for guitarists who approach the instrument as a life-long creative pursuit for the benefit of themselves,
their listeners, and the world in general.

Confessions of a Zen Guitar Monk

The banner atop this page tells you I play and arrange for solo jazz guitar. But my “day job” involves writing things (not including guitar blogs) on a range of topics for clients. I also write other things (including guitar blogs).


Once I had a great idea for another book. It would address how my years of training in Zen and the Asian martial arts have directly improved my guitar playing. Philosophically and practically, the principles of Zen have proven transferable to other aspects of my life—but most notably my musical life. Skills from one art, I have found, can often be applied to another in unexpected ways. Classical Zen thinking has enhanced so many aspects of studying and playing the guitar.


Interesting angle for a book, I thought. There was only one problem. It had already been written.


Authored by the late Philip Toshio Sudo, the published work is simply entitled Zen Guitar. It was a good thing I never got to write it. Sensei Sudo's prose is beautifully written and illustrates his far superior knowledge of the subject matter. Never could I have treated these Zen concepts with such eloquence and insight.


Zen Guitar walks us through a series of lessons—from white belt to black belt—that help us understand how Zen principles can be applied to the instrument. Quotes from musicians ranging from Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix to Miles Davis amplify the author’s guidance.


Zen is a highly personal thing. Just like music. Here are just some of the concepts I’ve personally embraced since adopting a Zen guitar monk's mindset:


  • Zen helps us become "centered" in our practice and performance. With a meditative focus, it is possible to achieve a completely "centered" state while playing and performing. This can be expressed as true integration of body, mind, and musical spirit.—a state of maximum concentration and boundless creativity. Through Zen guitar we train our minds to have 'no mind' when playing … that is, pure musical expression that’s inherently creative and delivered without conscious thought.

  • "From one thing, know 10,000 things." This is an ancient samurai expression cited in Zen Guitar. It refers to the fact that when we’ve mastered one art or skill, we are able to carry over that expertise to another art. An example: I have transferred techniques I learned in kobudo (weapons training in Okinawan karate) to certain aspects of my picking. The physical concepts underlying weapons work—holding a task-related object (for lack of a better term), maneuvering it, and changing the position or grip when necessary—were unexpectedly applicable to my right-hand technique.

  • We have an obligation to "give the gift" of our music to others. Like other great religions, Zen Buddhism encourages us to bring love and compassion to the world. We’re uniquely able to do so through our music. I don’t have to tell you how beautiful the guitar can sound. You play it. The therapeutic value of music is well documented. Our instrument offers a wondrous means of stirring human emotion in positive and productive ways.


To this last point, I’m proud to say my playing has made many women cry. Two examples are below.

My style can be characterized as soft, mellow, easy listening guitar of (mainly) American Songbook standards. (It’s a sound that one recital attendee characterized as "music to lower blood pressure by.") At a nursing home visit, Rose, an elderly woman listening to Autumn in New York, shed tears upon hearing her and her late husband's favorite ballad. And at a restaurant gig, Loretta cried when she thanked me for playing her late mom's beloved Satin Doll.


These ladies’ tears were there. But so were their smiles. 


As a self-proclaimed monk of Zen Guitar, I can honestly say I enjoy making people cry through my music. In the spirit of this musical philosophy, I encourage you to do so as well.

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Some Words about Chord Vocabulary (or Bucky Pizzarelli is Absolutely Right!)

Imagine listening to a practiced pianist who only used single notes to play a song. Unheard of!


The piano keyboard offers 88 keys to make music. It's logical—indeed, almost obligatory—that both notes and chords be played by the instrumentalist. The guitar is the same way in that it too provides multi-tonic playing possibilities. Single notes are often used, of course. But it’s chords that are played in the majority of musical situations.

In many respects, chord playing is the essence of the guitar. Yet today it’s easy to get the feeling that chordal exploration—what can be considered as a true art within the art of guitar playing—continues to wane in practice and performance.


Take an informal poll on Facebook or YouTube. Guaranteed, you’ll find players of all styles flashing their lead-playing chops. Rarely do you see posted videos of people’s chordal pyrotechnics!


None of this is to denigrate playing one-part harmonies. It’s fun to “fly”—whether it’s a screaming rock lead, boisterous bluegrass picking, or sweeping jazz lines. Still, chordal improvisation and development seem to be taking on “dying art [within an art]” status.


One of the most renowned guitarists ever embodies—and is preserving—the beauty of chordal mastery. That player is jazz guitar legend Bucky Pizzarelli.


Bucky is currently making a remarkable comeback from a mini-stroke he suffered late last year. Clearly, there’s no slowing down this 90-year-old grandmaster—who, incidentally, is a friend of 95-year-old Al Caiola, who was cited in this space a few weeks ago. (Two New Jersey nonagenarians. Revered musical elders. Guitar monsters. Makes sense.)


Bucky is, without question, best known for his chord-centric style of playing. Interviewed recently before a gig, he stressed the criticality of chord playing in order to attain freedom and flexibility as a guitarist. He touched on 3 things that all players should consider. Allow me to paraphrase and amplify his words:


  1. Having a strong chord vocabulary enables you to create solo arrangements of any song you want. The guitar can be voiced “pianistically” to play songs using combinations of chords, chord phrases, and single notes—thus enabling you to play unaccompanied. Bucky has always emphasized the importance of learning and playing complete songs. (Sounds obvious, but a lot of developing players simply don’t do it.)

  2. When you play as part of a group, you’re often playing accompaniment. Always “make the other guy sound as good as he can.” Face it, we’re accompanying other musicians most of the time before we get our moment in the solo spotlight. That means we’re generally playing chords. The prettier the chords/phrases we play, the better the “other guy” will sound. In an interesting take on guitar karma, Bucky suggests that this selfless mindset will come back to us in positive musical ways. (I agree.)

  3. An expansive chord vocabulary can be applied in all aspects of playing. Beyond chord melody playing, Bucky is known as the master of block chord soloing. His is a vintage style of chording that harkens back to the earliest jazz guitar pioneers like Carl Kress, Eddie Lang, and Dick McDonough. What’s ‘notable’ about Bucky’s chord voicings is that many are used interchangeably between his solo and accompaniment work. (And oh so tastefully.) 


Sometimes I can be accused of trying to sound like Bucky. To that I say, “Yeah, so? What jazz guitarist wouldn’t want to have a little ‘Pizzarelli’ on their musical menu of techniques?” Besides, Bucky’s sound has rubbed off on me over the years… hey, I can practically hear him practicing, considering I live just over 5 miles from his house in Saddle River here in northern New Jersey.


Still, I love playing octaves the way Bucky plays them. And his signature style of chord soloing is an ongoing area of study and application for me. He plays a forever-classic jazz sound—occasionally infused with country and Western Swing—that strongly resonates with me as a guitarist.


Bucky is right when he says we all need to keep learning and playing songs, both as a soloist and accompanist. It stands to reason that only with a solid foundation of chordal technique—and a true appreciation for it as an art within the art of guitar—can we do so.

His insightful words and inspirational playing attest to that.

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“Breath Control” for Guitarists (or Listening to Lou: Part I)

A couple of years ago I made what could be considered a “gold mine” find.


Stuffed away in a basement bin were a series of crumpling audio cassettes of lessons I had recorded with my late guitar teacher, Lou, dating back to the late 1980s. I feared trying to play them because of their visible frailty. But thanks to the help of a gifted audiophile friend, I was able to transfer each of the tapes―roughly eight hours in total―to digital files, thus ensuring their preservation and access.


Finding the tapes was a classic “OMG” moment. Listening to them has been nothing short of enlightening. It’s been an opportunity to revisit my lessons and the essence of the instruction I received from a long-lost master—a man I greatly admired and loved as a friend. Listening to the tapes, it’s amazing to recall Lou’s original guidance and hear it delivered in his inimitable style. (It’s more amazing to learn how much I forgot!)


So who was Lou?


That would be Lou Sosa―a master guitarist, teacher, painter, collector, philosopher, and entrepreneur. Lou was your classic little Italian-American guy from Brooklyn. He was a top New York-area jazz player in the 50s and 60s (albeit largely unheralded) and a close friend of players like Chuck Wayne and Wes Montgomery. Lou was a fan of great guitarists across musical genres. He often talked enthusiastically about players ranging from Andres Segovia to Larry Carlton.


Sadly, Lou’s days were dwindling at the time I studied with him. He was dying of cancer. What’s more, his hands were wrenched with arthritis. He had difficulty forming chords and playing lines. He would visibly and audibly grimace every time he played. It never stopped him from teaching his devoted students.


Lou spiced up his guitar instruction with examples outside the world of music that were directly or indirectly applicable to it. He was a master of the analogy. One philosophy that I rediscovered listening to The Lou Sosa Tapes related to what he called “breath control” for guitarists.


In one particular lesson from 1989, we were focused on single-string lead playing, which he preferred to simply call picking. Months earlier we had worked on all the foundational modes, scales, and arpeggios. Now it was time to put it all together in creating melodic lines.


Lou’s instruction focused on a key thought: soloing was like “telling a story” through the instrument. The notes at your disposal in a given key were your vocabulary. Lou said, “use those ‘words’ to tell a story. And, very important, don’t forget to breathe.”




In response to my request for clarification, Lou launched into deadpan reply using a lowered, purely monotonic, staccato, Bensonhurst-tinged voice and a totally expressionless expression:




Lou demonstrated by picking out some beautiful lines on his D’Angelico Excel over the changes to I’ll Remember April―multiple, perfectly placed “breaths” included. Then he paused and reiterated: when you’re telling a story through the guitar, make sure you stop to inhale, to breathe in the middle of your soloing. And use different “inflections” throughout.


Breath control for singers means regulating the amount of air you take in to manage the qualities of sound, volume, pitch, and tone. Breath control for guitarists means occasionally pausing during your playing, and using those “breaths” to enhance the story you’re telling.


Years after Lou died, I learned of the classical composer Claude Debussy’s famous quote: “Music is the space between the notes.” Kind of like stopping to breathe during your improvisational playing. Exactly. It made me recall Lou’s guidance.


“Breath control” for guitarists was just one of many explanatory concepts this wonderful teacher set forth. To me, they were all valuable concepts that tied to the “thinking” side of playing. Having rediscovered The Lou Sosa Tapes, I can now think of them often.

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Slow Hands: The Message in Eric Clapton’s Sad Announcement

The recent news was disheartening: Eric Clapton may soon no longer be able to play the guitar because of a debilitating nerve disease.


Naturally, it’s hoped that none of us will ever succumb to such a severe illness. Still, Clapton’s condition reminds us that, as guitarists, we must be aware of the potential for developing physical problems that can complicate—or totally prevent—our playing. The fact is we need not have to encounter physical trauma or disease like Clapton. Time can just take its toll considering—as we all know—how physically demanding it is to play the instrument in the first place.


I once had occasion to meet the 95-year-old guitarist (yes, 95) Al Caiola, when he played at my NJ hometown jazz spot, the Glen Rock Inn. Caiola is the legendary studio and recording artist who plays jazz, country, rock, and pop music. During his decades-long musical career, Caiola has recorded with such luminaries as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennet, Elvis Presley, and Buddy Holly. His famous soundtracks include vintage TV and movie classics like Bonanza, From Russia with Love, and The Magnificent Seven.


In an article in Jersey Jazz magazine, Caiola was asked by fellow jazz guitar legend Frank Vignola how he has been able to avoid arthritis and maintain his “hand health” over the decades.


Caiola’s answer: cabbage soup.


Now, I’m not for a moment suggesting you go out and Google a recipe. But what’s important to note is that Caiola discovered his own individual solution to a prevalent problem. It follows that we should try to identify things we can personally do to limit the wear-and-tear strains of playing.


I discovered mine by accident. A student asked me once how I’ve safeguarded my hands over the years. It was the first time I thought about it.


I’ve been fortunate to not have developed any serious hand- or wrist-related problems thanks to a series of hand exercises I’ve done daily over the last 20 years as a karate practitioner. These stretching exercises are designed to support combat grappling, but they’ve proven beneficial to my guitar practice by boosting strength and flexibility in my hands. Only when asked by my student did I realize that the exercises have been a welcome by-product of my karate training. A pleasant surprise.


All things considered, it would seem important that part of our guitar warm ups should include hand, finger, or other exercises. (There are several interesting guitar exercise videos on YouTube.) You can apply them either before a practice session or as part of a broader regular workout. Either way, it’s advisable to perform them for a few minutes every day.


And don’t forget diet, as one 95-year-old guitarist would advise.


For Caiola, eating a certain food has helped him avoid hand stress issues. Al’s solution is fascinating (and kind of funny too). More important, it highlights the fact that we all have to work to stay “guitar healthy.” Stated another way, we have to attend to the physical aspects of musicianship in addition to the mental aspects of it.


It’s truly unfortunate that Slowhand’s hands are being slowed by disease. Clapton’s situation should never befall anyone.


But his problems stem from a nervous system disorder and, according to him, years of drug and alcohol abuse. Certainly, Clapton’s condition could never be attributed to prolonged guitar playing. But the fact is physical setbacks may occur and stifle our practice. We should endeavor to avoid them if at all possible.


Incorporating hand exercises or other measures today can help us sidestep painful problems in the future.


“Waiter, on second thought, I think I’ll have the cabbage soup.”

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A Guitar Song That Defies Categorization

One of the great things about being a musician is discovering new songs and artists and the musical ideas that flow from them.


Not that long ago I had the good fortune to discover the guitarist Jimmy Herring and one of his signature numbers: Red Wing Special. The song appears on his 2012 release, Subject to Change Without Notice. It was Herring’s second solo effort, and Red Wing Special leads it off.


Upon first hearing it, I had to ask: Is it country? Rock? Jazz? This Herring composition is literally all of the above. It was then that I realized, never had I heard a song that was so stylistically diverse that it seemingly defied categorization!


Give a listen to Red Wing Special (YouTube video link below). This tight, up-tempo tune is marked by intricate guitar and violin interplay. Herring leads the way with his distinctive Stratocaster sound. He takes the first solo, which combines his characteristic electric lines with those that recall Django Reinhardt Gypsy jazz. Fittingly, from that standpoint, Herring’s solo is smoothly followed by a fiddle solo that necessarily evokes Reinhardt’s famous bandmate, the violinist Stephane Grappelli. Steady bass lines provide a solid bottom throughout. A brief but well-placed drum solo fills out the track before the string players reunite.


I was immediately inspired, creatively, by Red Wing Special. Perhaps it was because of the pure energy of the song. (The second time I heard it, I picked up my guitar and jumped onboard this motoring musical train!)  But it was more than that.


The song displays three distinct styles—country, rock, and jazz—and shows how they can be beautifully woven together. The combination of sounds melds to deliver a stylistic character almost unto itself. It’s a little like the four notes sung by a Barbershop Quartet which, together, yield a magical fifth tone!


Listening to Red Wing Special was a true musical discovery. For me, hearing Herring for the first time was a gift from the guitar gods.


Forgive the hyperbole.


To be honest, as a jazz player, most of the time I’m listening to jazz guitar. But then along comes this monster “rock” guitarist who completely blows me away with his eclectic electric sound and killer technique … and becomes someone I now listen to on a regular basis. Someone who’s now one of my favorite all-around players.


As for garnering new musical ideas …


Playing along with Red Wing Special prompted me to hear and develop chord phrases that I articulated as 4-note voicings on the top strings. Naturally, it’s hard to put sounds into words, but I used diminished shapes as passing chords through the major chord voicings … moving up and down the neck into different positions. Everyone gets different musical ideas when listening to different songs. The idea that came to me when I was listening to Red Wing Special was a series of flowing chord phrases in the upper register. I liked the way it sounded, so I essentially developed a new technique that I’ve since carried over to my solo arrangements and chordal improvisation in general.


Herring is not only an amazing guitarist. I understand, firsthand, that he’s also a pretty amazing guy—friendly and gracious. My son Daniel (that’s him on the right in the picture below of Jimmy) had the pleasure of meeting and hanging with his guitar hero before Herring’s band, Widespread Panic, played at the Brooklyn (NY) Bowl last year.


(Oh, BTW: Widespread Panic? That name is a regular riot!)


Daniel uploaded the YouTube video below a few years back. Many of the 6,000+ views it’s received since then are by me. If you want to play along with this swinging (and fast!) number, it’s in D major.


It’s great when guitarists are open to exploring different styles to create vibrant new musical ideas, sounds, and songs. Jimmy Herring—as evidenced by his Red Wing Special—is the quintessential example of that type of player.


Have fun and enjoy if you jam with Jimmy on Red Wing Special. I certainly do.

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