Blues With Brains – DVD
Review by Scott Auld
How many times have you found yourself at an open-mic jam night at a bar, or playing with a few other guitarists in a blues jam, and the semi-drunk player with the too-loud-for-the-room setup says to you, "Let me throw that blues box at you one more time, bro!"
We've all been there. The trouble is that far too many guitarists have been taught that you only need five notes to get by - the 'pentatonic box' - and that these notes can be randomly played in any order over any chord, and that this somehow qualifies as "blues music".
Chuck D'Aloia takes a practical approach to ridding the world of these irritating - and to be frank, broken - guitarists: he proposes to fix them, teaching the world to play enlightened blues with his aptly-titled "Blues With Brains" DVD series, available at http://www.chuckdaloiamusic.com.
If this first installment of the series is any indication, Chuck is prepared to take us as deep into the blues as we want to go, and this first DVD effortlessly dives right in.
Chuck has an ear for music. That's clear as he constantly reminds us that we are not playing the guitar just for the sake of getting random notes into the air, and that instead, we are here to play music that actually sounds like something someone would want to listen to. As Chuck begins to address the good old pentatonic scale, he shows us how the inherent musicality of that pattern can be tapped over a chord progression. But he's only just getting started.
With an infectious enjoyment of the music he's using in the illustrations, Chuck tackles the A minor blues progression. He acknowledges that one could just live on the A minor pentatonic scale for the entire duration of the progression, but he quickly points out where the scale falls short (the progression includes a flatted sixth chord leading to the V) and how to rectify this with creative playing.
One does not need a degree in music theory - or even to have taken high school music theory, for that matter - to begin to appreciate and benefit from Chuck's discussion of how scales ride over chord progressions, but he also does not dumb down the discussion just to accommodate a player who does not know the IV chord from his elbow. This approach is probably even MORE beneficial to the non-theory player, because it should inspire them to go search out the beginnings of an education on how music theory works. This might be one of the biggest benefits of all to the beginner: Chuck's excitement about music and his calm & friendly approach to theory probably will make many consider what they have been missing.
Preaching concept over flashy playing, Chuck begins to show how slight alterations to well-known scales allow for interesting melody, while constantly reminding us that we are playing music, not trying to impress ourselves with a flurry of fast notes. Where we would have previously avoided the bad-sounding notes in a scale, he points out alternatives. Chuck also takes us on a little tour of the many places where the same pattern can be played over a given chord, adding spice to our music. For example, while everyone knows that an A minor pentatonic scale works over the root chord, he encourages us to try a B minor pentatonic scale, and then goes on to provide ideas for other sweet-sounding locations for the same pattern.
If I had to offer a criticism of the DVD lessons, it would be that one keeps getting distracted by the lovely chewy-sounding overdrive tone Chuck is producing during each demonstration. Be prepared to rewind several times, so that you can catch what was just said while you were wondering what gear produced that great sound.
Just when you start to feel like you've got a secret weapon for your next jam session, Chuck gently stresses again musicality over a machine-gun flutter of notes ... which really should be the whole point, right? Musical phrasing is constantly but lovingly encouraged rather than "painting by the numbers" & rote memorization.
Chuck touches on the concept of developing a theme & building variations on it, something that has been a foundational truth of music since Bach's time, but he does not come across as stodgy or old fashioned. His friendly and disarming style really just makes you want to pick up your guitar and start playing over the (included) backing tracks. You could probably find over a hundred guitar-lesson DVDs for sale very quickly with the aid of the internet, but you will have to look a long time before finding one with the heart of a teacher like Chuck has.
One amusing moment in the DVD comes during the section on Dominant 7 Blues, when Chuck is exploring which note, the minor third versus the major third, works within musical contexts ... Chuck interrupts himself to give a quick set of "freebie" lessons on Jazz substitutions that work over the chord transitions for both minor blues and dominant 7 blues - for example, during transitions from chord to chord. Using the guitar-friendly diminished scale, Chuck shows us a few "cool little things" that get us from one chord to another, reminding us why this lesson is called "Blues with Brains."
Larry Carlton & Robben Ford lovers will immediately recognize this approach to the blues, but may gain new insight as to where some of their favorite esoteric-sounding scales & patterns come from. But I doubt that the non-jazzer will become distracted or lost: during the play-along demonstrations, Chuck clearly indicates where Mixolydian Pentatonics & Diminished scales are being used while never dropping his soulful style.
Adding to the personal-guitar-lesson feel of the DVD, Chuck at one point interrupts his own play-along demonstration to explain something he had just played, (namely, throwing arpeggiated triads over chords - in effect, short three-note scales that fit over certain chords,) it's this type of spur-of-the-moment teaching that opens up new approaches to harmonic playing.
Chuck spends a little while talking music philosophy, in an enjoyable chicken-and-the-egg discussion about theory vs. musicality, offering his fun opinions on playing melodic ideas by ear and not worrying too much about the theory that supports it until later in your progress.
Adding to the enjoyment, Chuck provides examples of ways to stretch out and explore the fretboard, almost like little hunting parties to track down the many ways to play the same lick on different parts of the neck. If this doesn't make you want to pause the video and pick up your guitar, you might need to verify that you have a pulse. You're going to want to watch this DVD a lot more than once - it's got legs.
You can tell how much Chuck really enjoys the guitar as he reminds us that our individuality comes out as we explore the instrument and work on playing what we hear in our heads, finding our own voice. Chuck keeps encouraging us to research our influences and THEIR influences, and shows examples of how to listen for musical vocabulary in the playing we hear every day.
Chuck clearly enjoys the role of teacher as he provides an historical perspective on the short time that electric guitar music has been around, and the paths that artists of the past have blazed. How we are influenced by what we hear and by the context of our surroundings is only one topic mentioned. The discussion on rhythm guitar and of leaving room for other instruments to play also reveals Chuck's insight into the history of improvised guitar music. His understanding of improvisation on a theme is only hinted at, but will be an eye-opener for folks who are just starting to explore improvising.
Chuck really makes you wish you could hear him talk, play and explain for another hour, and when the DVD ends with the words "Blues With Brains Part One" on the screen, you honestly hope Part Two isn't too far behind.