A quick interview with my guitarist and chilli sauce making pal Ali who is staying here in Brighton over new year.
Alistair is a two-time graduate of both the ACM and Los Angeles Music Academy with over 20 years musical experience. In that time he has as worked as a guitar instructor for Yamaha, and as a guitarist and keyboard player in professional bands ranging from jazz through to pop. Alistair has also performed live with Puerto-Rican pop star Noelia, worked with Emmy-nominated producer Philip Giffin, and has held a senior position with guitar-manufacturing giants Ibanez.
Rosa: When did you first pick up a guitar?
Ali: I was 15 and in my last year of school. Until then I had not thought at all about what I wanted to do. I played piano since age 7 so guitar came naturally. I already had music books – Hal Leonard transcriptions, but they were piano books containing chord boxes. We had a classical guitar in the house. Out of sheer curiosity I put fingers where the dots were on the chord boxes, strummed and the chord came out. That guitar was in that cupboard untouched for 14 years, if it hadn’t been in tune I wouldn’t have played again.
Rosa: It was in tune that whole time?
Ali: Yes. Also at the time we had no internet so I wouldn’t have known how to get it in tune… I could have tuned to the piano but didn’t know standard guitar tuning.
Rosa: What music did you play?
Ali: I was an indie kid. It was the mid/late 90s so I listened to Oasis, Charlatans, The Bluetones, that kind of thing.
Rosa: Can you remember being influenced by any particular inspirational guitarists?
Ali: At the time I had not really thought about it. In my earlier childhood I listened to heavier music but it was popular. Stuff like Def Leppard, Iron Maiden, everyone had The Black Album by Metallica. On the North East coast of England everyone had cropped hair and football shirts – you daren’t speak of metal! It was very northern and indie when I started playing.
Rosa: You studied performance at uni, how did you find it?
Ali: My secondary school was strict and catholic. I then went to Grimsby College of Art and Design. Other than the course, it was different due to calling teachers by first names and having no uniform. People smoked on the patio and no one cared. I was musically liberated due to new surroundings. It was inspiring as there was a more focused attention on the subject and it was approached from different angles. You got many different influences from different people. At this point I had played for a few months. I could strum a few chords, play some lead lines but I never struggled with rhythm.
I then went on to study at ACM which really helped me focus on overall performance and stage presence as a musician. You realise that performance is so subjective and it depends on image… Oasis don’t leap around but Aerosmith do even in their old age.
All the tutors were gigging and touring musicians. It was a positive experience as I was surrounded by like-minded people.
Rosa: Do you have any tips for getting over stage fright?
Ali: Jump in at the deep end. The main thing is the notion that you will make a fool of yourself. Same thing as learning a language and practising it in the field and fearing ridicule. Think less of yourself. Be ok with making stupid mistakes, if you do make them then laugh at them. You need to learn to get better and it is all about experience.
A lot of stand up comedians say that in conversation with people one of the most common things they hear is “I couldn’t do what you do”. People think that about musicians but don’t say it, they tend to be more critical.
Rosa: Is that because comedians don’t have an instrument to hide behind?
Ali: Yeah. The thing is you can make beautiful music but be really troubled. If you are a comedian and troubled then it comes out.
Rosa: Have you used technology much in conjunction with your guitar playing?
Ali: I use Youtube and iTunes a lot when teaching. I sometimes use an online metronome but I don’t like them as I find them soul-less – you can’t get a feel with a metronome. Instead I use a free flash online drum machine with a decent rhythm. This gives the students more of a primitive feel for a type of rhythm.
I don’t record myself much but recording and listening back to yourself does help a lot when you are playing. It sounds different to how you think you sound… you hear from the listener’s point of view. You can hear mistakes you were making and can get a sense of how fast you are improving.
Rosa: Is anyone un teachable?
Ali: Those who don’t practice or give up. You can tell if student hasn’t practiced, it is much more obvious than they think.
If they are not already musical then I break down what they need to learn into numbers or use analogies usually around engineering or physical exercise to explain how things work.
Rosa: What is the most common struggle in students?
Ali: Rhythm, discipline in learning rhythm. With either tab or audio examples or a combination, they get the notes in the right order a lot earlier than they can grasp the rhythm. If they don’t have natural rhythm in music then it takes them a lot longer. Even if teaching vocally. Without a natural sense of rhythm the quickest way for them to improve is through using vocalisations. The indian ta-ka-di-mi system is a way of breaking down beats into semi quavers. You can also use words such as ‘helicopter’.
Rosa: What is your favourite model of guitar?
Ali: It has changed massively but I will be boring and pick a Strat. Mainly because of the tone and secondly I have never owned one. I want a Strat and a good one.
Rosa: Advice to someone thinking of starting out?
Ali: Dive in. Find all your favourite music, go online, find the chords, learn the chords, and just bury your head in it.
It is a lot easier now to teach yourself due to online resources. It takes patience and discipline. If you have not played before, it is a muscle memory skill so if you stop doing it you will forget it. Like the gym, if you go one day a week you barely improve. You need to do it every day.
P.S don’t rush. Trying to play something you are unfamiliar with too fast makes you very sloppy, nobody wants to be sloppy.