Rock Screaming 101: From Kermit to Kurt in 6 Weeks

This Saturday is the Coffee Shop Jam, and I’m ready to scream.

Nothing’s wrong. I’m just gearing up for the weapons-grade rock vocals required for this Jam’s setlist, including “Arlandria” by the Foo Fighters, “In Bloom” and “Lounge Act” by Nirvana, and—my larynx convulses at the mention of it—“Girl’s Got Rhythm” by AC/DC.

These songs all feature high-pitched, raspy rock vocals that I used to think could only be gained from passing noxious chemicals over your vocal chords for years on end. That is, until I started taking vocal lessons a few years ago from Seattle’s screaming guru, Susan Carr, in order to prepare this Kermit-the-Frog sound-alike to teach “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for an online guitar instruction website.

It turns out that there’s a simple formula for kick-ass rock vocals: Get your voice in great shape, and then loosen things up by talking like a pirate or singing like Cookie Monster.

For the past 6 weeks, I’ve been doing the vocal exercises Sue taught me—a combination of breathing and singing scales—and then topping things off by singing “Happy Birthday” a few times in a Cookie Monster voice. The results have been awesome. I may not sound like Kurt Cobain, but I definitely don’t sound like Kermit anymore.

Well, maybe Kermit before his third trip to rehab.


The show went great. Here are a few screaming highlights:

“Lounge Act” by Nirvana
No screaming ’til the end

“Cold as Ice” by Foreigner
This one isn’t as gravelly, but it’s HIGH!

Good Vibrations

What an amazing video:

Anyone who’s played a harmonic on the guitar knows that string vibration is a magical, mysterious phenomenon. I’ve heard it compared to a moving passenger train. As the countryside flies by, your teacup is rattling on your saucer: That’s one kind of vibration. But the whole traincar is vibrating too: A second vibration. The traincar is also swaying as it moves: a third vibration. And the entire train is coursing through s-curves in a winding valley: A final, huge vibration.

In the same way, a plucked string has many different layers of vibrations happening simultaneously: The whole string is moving side-to-side, which creates the fundamental tone that our ear is drawn to. But smaller vibrations—the traincar and teacup vibrations—create overtones that are hard to pick out, but without them our plucked guitar strings would sound more like electronic beeps.

What blows me away in this video is how huge those “teacup” vibrations are. I figured they were tiny, humming wiggles, barely perceptible even if we could slow them down. But apparently, our strings wiggle like sidewinders. Incredible.

Incidentally, if you’re interested in trying to hear those subtle overtones in your guitar’s notes, play a harmonic on a string, then pluck the open string. Listen for the sound of the harmonic quietly ringing behind the loud fundamental pitch.

New Features: Hot Songs and Cool Buttons

I’ve been in mad-scientist mode this past weekend, making some changes to the site design. What day is it? Where did all these dirty dishes come from?

Let me know if you think the work was worth it.

FireWhat’s Hot

There’s now a list of the most popular songs, both on the web and on this website, in the sidebar of the chord charts.

Google +1 and Like ButtonLike and Google +1 Buttons

You can now share your favorite blog posts, chord charts, and other pages on this site with your friends on Facebook.

Also, I’ve added Google +1 buttons, Google’s answer to the “Like” button, on some pages. Your friends will see pages you’ve +1’d when they sift through Google search results.

Google +1 and Like ButtonNavigation Bar Redesign

I made the navigation bar at the top of the page smaller, making more room for the vastly more interesting stuff below.

The Heartwood Beat, Issue 16: Chord Chart Update and Restringing Tips

Hello Heartwood Beat Subscribers,

I hope you’re all well and enjoying the start of summer. I’m having fun with my most recent writing project: Creating a beginning guitar course that I’ll offer on my website starting this summer or fall.

Chord Chart Update

I just posted thirty new chord charts, including a trio of toe-tapping Taylor Swift tunes, a round of indie-rock refrains, and a cornucopia of classic-rock crowd-pleasers. Most include strumming diagrams (I know how helpful those are to many of you), and there’s strumming video support for $7/month, too.

U2The Allman Brothers – Ramblin’ Man
America – Horse With No Name
Avett Brothers – Shame
Belle and Sebastian – Judy and the Dream of Horses
Creedence Clearwater Revival – Lodi
Taio Cruz – Dynamite
The Decemberists – Down by the Water
Bob Dylan – Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door
Green Day – She’s a Rebel
Steve Earle – Pilgrim on this Road
James – Sometimes
Jet – She’s a Genius
Joni Mitchell – Conversation
MGMT – Time to Pretend
The Mountain Goats – Sax Rohmer #1
Nada Surf – Always Love
Tom Paxton – What If, No Matter
Katy Perry – Firework
Katy Perry – Hot N Cold
The Pretty Reckless – My Medicine
Radiohead – Karma Police
Red Hot Chili Peppers – Storm in a Teacup
Kevin Rudolf – Let it Rock
Amanda Seyfried – Li’l Red Riding Hood
Taylor Swift – Speak Now
Taylor Swift – Teardrops on My Guitar
Taylor Swift – You Belong With Me
They Might Be Giants – Roy G. Biv
U2 – Love Rescue Me
U2 – Where the Streets Have No Name
Eddie Vedder – Society

Restringing Tips

Restringing25 years of restringing my guitars have taught me the following tricks. I hope these help you enjoy, or at least zip through, this chore.

1. Clear a table and lay down a towel

You want enough room to rotate your guitar without knocking over lamps, empty beer bottles, etc.

2. Make a restringing kit

Wire cutters
Dunlop Formula 65 Cleaner
Gertlitz Guitar Honey (for conditioning rosewood and ebony fingerboards)
Mechanical Pencil

3. Clean your guitar after you remove old strings

There will never be an easier time. If you oil your fingerboard, use separate rags for oil and cleaner.

4. Lubricate nut slots with a pencil

Have you ever heard a quiet, high “ping” when you tuned your guitar? That’s the sound of your string suddenly slipping through your nut slot. This is bad: To easily tune your guitar, you need your strings running through that slot like water through a pipe. Les Pauls are notorious for this problem, because their headstock design requires strings to take a sharp turn as they pass through the nut, increasing friction.

To lube the nut slots, just scribble graphite in each nut slot with a mechanical pencil.

Fan Mail

Rob's Totally Awesome Guitar Teaching HandbookEvery few days I get the pleasure of reading praise from a reader of my Totally Awesome Guitar Teacher’s Handbook. Here are a few recent ones that made me smile.

“Rob – in the short amount of time I have been reading your hand book – you have save the musical lives of 10 young students I have been struggling with. Thank you – I can’t wait for class today.”

“Your book is just what I needed. I’ve read it twice and just printed it out today so I can highlight and scribble notes. Now I feel good about turning my garage into a professional looking studio for learning.”

“Thanks to reading and applying the info in your ebook, my site is drawing in a steady stream of new students and I’m loving the journey of building a stronger and stronger teaching practice.”

Learn more about the Handbook here.

Enjoy the music,


Q &#8800 Quiet

“Q” was not for “Quiet” on April 30th, when we descended on the Q Cafe for the 2011 Spring Coffee Shop Jam. The show featured my guitar students, and the students of my friends Brady and Mark, who teach bass and drums. The Coffee Shop Jam is always incredible, and this was no exception: Moments of epic grandeur, quiet beauty, terror….

ConnorSamJackClairePhotos by Seattle photographer MKM Photography

I played on about 30 of the songs, and rehearsed many of them just a handful of times, so I had my own moments of terror. One came halfway through the second show, when I realized, with about four bars to go, that I’d neglected to sufficiently practice the solo to my student Jack’s cover of Green Day’s “Holiday.” It was in a different key than I was used to, and in the heat of the moment, I blanked. Is it in 8th position? 9th position? What key is this song in, anyway? This is not what you want to be thinking when you’re on stage.

Despite my occasional “jazz chord” and “avante-garde improvisation,” I was happy with my performance, and the students were in their typical fine form. I usually feature the younger kids on this blog, since their skills and passion are so striking. But today I want to share two performances by older students that stand out in my mind:

Here’s Claire doing a gorgeous cover of the Avett Brothers’ song “Shame”:

And here’s Gary singing “Pilgrim” by Steve Earle:

“That’s great Rob, but where are the kids?” you might say. Oh, OK, here’s Jack rocking that Green Day song. No making fun of my solo. Musicians are sensitive people.

“Dude, this music is lame,” you say. “How about some metal played by an overcaffinated 11-year-old and a student drummer pulverizing his teacher’s jazz kit? And let’s have the kid freak out at the ending and use a mic stand as a slide.” OK, you asked for it…

You can see all the Jam videos here.

And here are some great photos taken by my wife, Meg.

Another Happy Strummer

I love getting fan mail from musicians using my strum pattern videos.

it’s me again, Rob, but really i have to tell you that your videos have changed my guitar playing life…after 45 years of playing the same old DDUUDU (nice enough in its way), i really have all sorts of new rhythm options thanks to your videos…it all just comes together perfect, chord charts, lyrics, strum patterns and the videos. 

so here i am in Paris and it’s after midnight and i can’t stop.  got that Redemption Song rhythm into Stand By Me and i am grooving.  syncopation, who knew????

thanks thanks thanks.

How to Teach Guitar: The Role of Empathy

Rob's Totally Awesome Guitar Teaching HandbookThe following is an excerpt from Rob’s Totally Awesome Guitar Teaching Handbook.

When was the last time you were terrified trying something new? I’m not talking about the fear of sharks at your first surfing lesson. I mean trying something you really want to do, but you’re worried that Jah had other intentions when he doled out your aptitude. Perhaps it was dancing lessons, auditioning for a band, deciding to write a novel, or going on your first date after a bad breakup.

Many beginning guitar students will have the same kind of fear. They’re often courageous adults who were told in elementary school that they have no rhythm, or are tone deaf. They’re coming to you because they’re still searching for a way to make music despite discouragement, and they’re hoping you can point the way. Empathizing with them—feeling what they feel —will help you teach them.

FistOne way to empathize is to recall a comparable time in your life. You may have to dig deep. Kids risk failure all the time, but as people mature, they tend to find their path and then cruise it—seat back, one hand on the wheel. Even if you’re a dedicated life-long learner, it might be hard to remember the last time you were scared of being bad at something.

I got reacquainted with the fear of failure when I started singing lessons a couple years ago. I spent my first lesson mortified at all the unpredictable sounds I made. Afterwards, I remember recovering in my parked car soaked in sweat, staring at the dashboard, feeling like a vulnerable kid.

I recall that moment when I start lessons with a new student, reminding myself that while it’s just another day of work for me, it might be one of the scariest things they’ve done.

What do you think: How necessary is it for a teacher to empathize with their student? I’d love to hear some stories.

You can learn more about Rob’s Totally Awesome Guitar Teaching Handbook here.

Connor Does Metallica Justice

My 11-year-old student Connor had quite a week. Last Tuesday he appeared on TV. And on Saturday night, he gave an electrifying performance with his fellow metalheads at the School of Rock Presents: Classic Metallica show.

Never have I seen Connor so energized. He had me pumping my fist in the air, screaming the lyrics with him.

A couple vids from that night:

Connor’s TV Gig

Yesterday morning I joined my 11-year-old guitar student Connor at The Seattle Channel’s studio to watch him perform for the show Art Zone with Nancy Guppy. Nancy had contacted me a couple weeks ago looking for a rock guitarist to perform on an episode dedicated to young local artists. I sent her links to some of the videos from my 2009 Coffee Shop Jam. When she saw Connor’s explosive performance of “Death Nightmare,” she knew she’d found her rocker.

Connor had to do some scrambling to get ready for his TV gig. For one thing, in the past year Connor’s been revising his old songs, adding long guitar solos featuring new skills he’s developed. “Death Nightmare” in its current iteration is a sprawling, 5-minute epic. But Art Zone limited performances to 3 minutes. Uh-oh. Previously, when I’ve tried to nudge Connor toward making his songs more concise, I’ve been shut down. I may as well have been telling Michelangelo that he’d chiseled David all wrong.

Connor will be joined by an actor, flutist, hip-hop dancer, and magician.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that Nancy Guppy did what I could not. Connor was more than happy to hack up “Death Nightmare” for the promise of TV stardom. When I saw him next, he’d already figured out how to shorten the song to a crisp 2:45.

A tougher challenge Connor faced was performing for a TV camera. When you’re playing in front of a cheering crowd, it’s as if you’re connected to them by electric wires: Their energy pumps you up. But playing for a video camera is like playing into a black hole that’s sucking your energy into space. The only solution is to be your own generator.

I posed this problem to Connor by showing him two photos.

“You’re used to playing for this,” I said.

“But next week, you’ll be playing for this.”

“It’s not that you don’t have an audience,” I told him. “It’s just that you can’t see them. You’ll be playing for hundreds of people, and they’re going to love your music. But they’ll be invisible. How do you play for an audience like that?”

“I could imagine them,” said Connor. Bingo. For the rest of the lesson, Connor visualized cheering fans while playing “Death Nightmare.”

It was great to see Connor relaxed and having fun on the day of the shoot. He chatted with the friendly film crew, noodled on his guitar between takes, and hammed for the cameras like an old pro. Well, maybe not that old. Toward the end of the filming, Connor reminded the crew that while he digs 80’s metal, he’s still a kid of the cell phone era. On one take, Connor finished his song and then Nancy rushed in for her post-song interview, yelling “That ROCKED!” and holding up a lighter. Connor looked at her as if she were holding a banana.

You can watch Connor perform this Friday at 8pm on The Seattle Channel, streamed live here. It’ll also be available in the archives if you miss it.

Also, if you’d like to see Connor perform live, he’ll be playing and singing a few Metallica songs at the School of Rock Classic Metallica show on Saturday, Feb. 5 at 6:30pm at Studio Seven. $10 advance, $12 at the door. Details here.

Finally, in case you haven’t seen this, here’s Connor playing “Death Nightmare” at the 2009 Coffee Shop Jam. Hold on to your hairnets.

The Heartwood Beat, Issue 15: Gorgeousness Deconstructed

Update: Looks like the clips have been removed from YouTube. Bummer!

Today I want to share with you two examples of great music, deconstructed: A classic Rolling Stones recording split into its separate tracks, and an epic analysis of the gorgeous and baffling use of delay effects by U2’s guitarist, The Edge.

Gimme Shelter Deconstructed

Dangerous Minds turned me on to this series of audio clips, posted on YouTube, of the component tracks of the Rolling Stones classic, “Gimme Shelter.” I love Mick Jagger and Merry Clayton’s harmonies, and Clayton’s face-melting screams toward the end. Be patient during the brief periods of silence between the vocal lines—it’s worth it.

I also appreciated the opportunity to hear Keith Richard’s guitar work up close. The bit of string noise here and there made him more human.

And Bill Wyman’s bass playing was impressive. You can hear all these nuances that are lost, at least to my ears, in the final mix.


Rhythm Guitar (Keith Richards):

Lead Guitar and Piano (Keith Richards and Nicky Hopkins):

Bass (Bill Wyman):

Drums (Charlie Watts):

The Edge Deconstructed

I’m a huge fan of U2 and their innovative guitarist, The Edge. The Christmas after I bought my first electric guitar (I was 16), I begged my mom to buy me a $240 Boss DD-3 delay pedal so that I could create the beautiful cascades of notes I heard on U2’s Unforgettable Fire album. Santa delivered, but I still remember the disappointment of realizing, after two weeks of what must have sounded like very bad avante-garde electronica, that The Edge wasn’t going to give up his secret sound easily.

If only I’d had this website to refer to: A veritable PhD thesis on The Edge’s use of delay. A lot of it’s technical minutia that will only appeal to the geekiest U2 fans, but at least check out a few of the author’s home recordings.

A Study of The Edge’s Guitar Delay

Enjoy the music,