Category Archives: blog

Ballard Guitar Group: May 2017

Ben and the Guitar Group at The Chapel, May 2017. Photo by Rob Zverina
The first half of 2017 was a busy time for me as I delved deeper into composing for a group of electric guitars, culminating in Mandalas being performed as part of the UW's Alumni Alchemy (we are all alchemists now - very validating). What did I learn?
  • Have a goal lined up, or interest dwindles (duh).
  • Tab everything out
  • The more the merrier in the case of this piece/anything where Ebows are concerned.

Those last two months leading into May were awesome, and after taking the summer off (mostly) we're working on a new round of music, and I'll be writing and sharing here as we continue. For now, check out two of the recordings we've got posted on my soundcloud page:

This is the original demo I cobbled together from home recordings:

Here we are at the Meany Theater at UW:

...and at the Chapel later that month:

and, finally, a shot of the group after our Chapel show.
Ballard Guitar Group at The Chapel, May 2017. Left to Right: Matt Wainwright, Joshua Kohl, John Featherstone, Jacqui Gilroy, Ambrose Nortness, Eric Amrine, Ben McAllister, Don Craig, Cassidy Williams, Jake Savin, Brian Heaney, Bob Crow

New Guitar Group Announcement


I'm writing to you today to tell you about a group I'm forming. I'm hoping it's something you, or someone you know, might be interested in: an ensemble of electric guitars, couched somewhere between:

Rhys Chatham's A Secret Rose:

Glenn Branca's Symphony 1:

Robert Fripp's League / Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists:

and most of all Fred Frith's Guitar Quartet:

If you're someone who's wanted to do some deep listening with other guitarists, if you've wanted to delve into the range of this instrument in a group setting, if you've wanted to play a different role in a group than you have before - this is your group.

I've been writing pieces for this ensemble over the last ten years, knowing I'd get it together when the time felt right. The first set of pieces we'll dig into is a set of fairly minimal works I call Mandalas. They all start at a center, expand out to the edges, and retract back to a center. 4 movements of the larger work are demoed here:

You'll notice some Ebow ( work as well as some work (4th movement above) with a similar device created by Portland inventor Paul Vo, the Wond ( I'll be supplying Ebows to those who do not have them, and will work with each of you on technique if need be. I'm working on Mr. Vo to see if we can't secure some of his experimental devices as well.


I have one performance scheduled either May 25 and 26 at Good Shepherd Chapel in Seattle, and will be scheduling others once I know the size of my group and availability. I'm looking for at least 7 of you, and hoping for twice that.


Leading into May, I'm looking to rehearse twice a month, beginning the week of Feb 2/21. If you are interested, please respond - I look forward to hearing from you. I have a small space in Fremont which should accommodate us, but have access to bigger rehearsal space if need be.


All parts will include tablature, so the majority of the reading will be around rhythm, dynamics and technical notes. Some of the pieces are challenging and we'll want to be tight and practice on our own outside of rehearsals, but you won't need to read any crazy busy passages without tab to help.

Thanks for reading!

If you are interested, let me know by emailing me at

If you know any interested guitarists - please pass the message on!


198478l I remember hearing Ionisation for the first time in 10th grade. Zappa had crowed about Varèse and I must've picked that up somewhere. I was baffled. I bought the Robert Craft recording with the awesome Miro knockoff on the cover, all scratched to hell. There was a punk-rockness I felt that was way more powerful than anything I felt from Black Flag, fIREHOSE or Minor Threat (huge groups for me). This was ME, MINE, a sound only I knew. It was so noisy and disorganized to me initially, I was overloaded. I wish I could re-experience it now. "By brute force, I will understand this," I thought echoing in my mind Varèse's call to arms: "the present day composer refuses to die." I spun it another time, maybe 4 complete listens before I caved and put on something else. I tried repeatedly to penetrate the fog, only to identify favorite moments, the overall structure still elusive. Call in the big guns. Meg Dezell, powerful shaman whose father toured with Brubeck, heard my plea for guidance. My orchestra teacher raised her eyebrows and chuckled, "that's pretty difficult stuff. Not my thing at all, but there's a score in the Norton Anthology." She produced the tome I'd buy 3 years later for Music 101 at Shoreline Community College. "Try to count the beats in the bars as you listen." Bam. That's all I needed to hear. When you hear a young person's curious questions, hang out and answer them simply. This advice from my teacher was pivotal for me, a key unlocking every score I'd tried to follow. Varese had a beat, the rhythm was his blanket. Listen for the rhythm, identifying the layers, and you're halfway there. The next step's all about witnessing the counterpoints played by these layers (objects) and identifying how they make you feel, what they have you see.


An Oswaldian remix of The Stooges Fun House: There's something freeing in enforcing limitation. I've done a bunch of pieces where I restrict myself to a single loop or brief sample (, and I guess I've always thought 'remix' was the wrong word. When I hear Reich take a fragment of an idea and expand, contract, vary, blend, mold and turn it inside out, it feels divorced and devoid from the original material. Here, bringing up the original material changes your frame of reference, adding a subliminal color to the listening experience. I could listen to Funhausen raw, power through the soundscape makeup and come out the other side fresh, not knowing the source. Listening to it on the way in, I'm standing on the original, hearing the difference in the tin bag guitar sound of the original and pulling a picture together that's made up of what I hear on this disc, and what my ear memory supplies. Anyways, cool little EP.

fIREHOSE: Flyin’ the Flannel

I’ve spun this thing so many times. There’s something deeply poetic about these songs, their sequence. The whole is a sum of the parts, and these parts are strong.  Back in 90, Watt surprised everyone I knew by signing to Columbia. SST had been going so strong for so long, it was hard to swallow an end to SST glory days, but Sonic Youth, Meat Puppets, everyone SST was seeking greener pastures. f had released 2 killers back to back (Ragin + If’n), but fROMOHIO was weak to these ears. Felt slapped together. This was a return to form, a 2x4 to the head.  I always heard this album in 3 acts. Listen along and see if you hear it too: Act I: Rock tunes: Down w/the bass, Up Finnegan’s Ladder, Can’t Believe, including the singles. Is this classic A&R ‘start with the hits up front’ thinkin? Good tunes, then the mood swings. Act II: Road tunes. If act one is getting out of bed and hitting the coffee, act two is hitting the road, crystallizing beautifully in ‘Too long’.  Act III: Angular tunes: the last third is more Minutemen to my ears than anything they’d done at that point, ‘cept bits of Ragin. Maybe it’s just the energy in Ed we hadn’t heard before.  In my sequence, I cap Act 2 with Toolin, making Act 3 hold together a little more, but that’s just me. This one rules.  

Gerard Grisey’s Le noir de l’etoile

Fans of Xenakis’s Pithoprakta need to listen to Gerard Grisey’s Le noir de l'etoile. In the late 50s, architect/composer Xenakis expressed what he heard and felt during his time in the Greek resistance, using deep math to generate his pieces, evoking (for me) rainfall, rocks caught in a strong current, bullets flying by ears and choirs of shouting voices. This piece of Grisey’s, inspired by the discovery of pulsars, comes from similar sound world to my ears. Natural phenomena made flesh through notation, though I can’t say exaclty what phenomena yet. Beautiful piece - I can’t stop spinning it this week.  The Boston Globe wrote a great intro to this piece here. Here’s Pithoprakta, in case you haven’t heard it:

Medicine Hat: Tri-Cities, 1994

I was guitarist for Medicine Hat, a Seattle rock band active in the 1990s during Seattle's grungy mcGrunge period. Yuck I've always hated that word. Anyways - this is a little reflection on an awesome couple of years playing with my best friends. Over the spring of '93, our drummer and bass player convert a derelict moving truck into a tour van that sleeps 6, and things feel official. It's the beginning of summer and we're over the mountains, heading east to do another mini tour of the state: Yakima, Tri-cities, Spokane, maybe Boise. This time we're in a van all our own, just like Fugazi, Drive Like Jehu, the Police, etc. We'll never have to borrow my parent's station wagon again. Flying east on 90 to the Tri-cities, we are headed for the Hoedown, which at the time brings to mind the music of Mule, Phleg Camp, and other noise-minded twangpunk bands we were listening to at the time. "We" meaning everyone but our singer Sean, who would recoil in horror at the first sign of Phleg Camp. Hoedown means country to us, and we're not sure whether we'll be welcomed by kids or a rain of beer bottles like in the Blues Brothers. Anyone from Washington will tell you it's two states for two reasons. There's the Red and the Blue, divided by ideology and politics, and the wet and the dry, divided by the Cascades. We leave the Seattle cloud cover ceiling, cross Snoqualmie and hit glorious sun. We'd played with Tri-Cities superstars Small a few times so we're probably playing their tape with 'Legalize It'. It'll be a flat few hours' drive to the southeast corner. We pull into the club and it's hot. 90s and dry. Unload and grab food. I nerd out reading Carlos Castenada in our van for maybe 30 minutes, and emerge to see two parking lots full of people and cars, sneaking beers and joints. A cop hangs nearby. I split a bottle of cheap wine with a few folks who drove from Seattle to see us. I walk in to play and my clothes are immediately soaked with sweat. I'm dropping my fogged up guitar but manage to put it on. I'm 6 feet tall and clumsy, and I've got maybe 6 inches of headroom until I hit ceiling. Not so bad, perhaps, because it's carpeted, though craft-minded instrumentalists have woven coiled bits of broken guitar string everywhere. I've also got hair down to my ass at this point in life, and by end of set “rocking out” has tangled me in the carpeted-ceiling-string mess. We have to cut a chunk of my hair off to liberate me from the stage. Next up is Tchkung: the unique and awesome. Multiple drummers wrapped bass and maybe guitar in tribal calls to action, always pro-earth. YOU CLEAR CUT? DUNga DUNga dun DUN. WE SPIKE! YOU CLEAR CUT? DUNga DUNga dun DUN. WE SPIKE! was my favorite. An expanded show awaited hungry anarchists this time, as there was a firebreather joining in. In a small sweaty club with very low ceilings. I pull my stuff out to our van and load back up, sit inside for a moment, take some more wine and listen to the Tchkungdrums through the van wall. There is a break in the sound. Power outage? A lengthy enviro-sermon from the stage? The parking lot is full again with people and the cops have brought reinforcements. The fire breath had caught the ceiling carpet on fire and the show was over. Or paused - I can't remember. You see, I read too much and often miss out on things like this. -=-=- Later that year, we're invited to play with Treepeople and Engine Kid down in the Tri-cities. Treepeople are too big for Hoedowns, so we're rocking a giant tent in a dormant state fairgrounds. We've got company this time in Jeff the photographer, Dave Lights, and a gorgeous woman named Runhilde, who will later turn up as vocal gymnast lead singer of Thorr's Hammer with one of the Engine Kid (and later Sunn O))) fellas. We've got a full house to play to, but my amp dies. After scouring the Tri-cities area for tubes, I return empty-handed. Treepeople let me play through their Treeamp though so all's well. There’s a healthy crowd for us, which is lucky - we are the opener, and they like us. The Engine Kid hits the stage next, a trio. They quietly sing through the first verse of John Denver's Rocky Mountain High, and we have to stop talking to hear the singer in this boomy space. "...never saw an eagle flyyyyyy, rocky mountain….. BBBAAAAMMMMMMMMM." The wall of sound that accompanies the chorus on ‘High’ melts our faces off. Cool. No wonder we were the openers. Treepeople ruled, but Engine Kid stuck with me. Being an all ages show, we had some super drunk kids on our hands at the end. Drummer Jason, ever the pure soul, opted to drive em home on our way out of town. In school he'd written a paper on the 'evils of alcohol’, cinched tight with the closing line "our children are being herded into an alcohol ranch of no return". He hits every kid with this line as we drive them, one-by-one, home to their parents. Medicine Hat - I AM from listen faster on Vimeo.

Meditating / Little Gremlins

I practice meditation by sitting down and shutting up for 10-20 minutes a day. I practice guitar an hour a day. I practice running for about 1-2 hours, at least 3-4 times per week. I visit similar headspace with each activity, and each sympathizes with my music practice.

In my music practice, I always start out with some itenirary in mind. Warmups for 1/2 hour, scale drills for 1/2 hour, harmony for 1/2 hour, then work on a specific piece. Very often, though, I feel a pull to 'zoom in' on one particular area, one very specific little aspect of what I'm working on. Usually it's a rough section of a piece I'm working on, and I turn it into an exercise. It feels like identifying a little rough spot on my musical surface that needs sanding - repeating the thing slowly and methodically makes me comfortable after a while, with speed and facility not for behind. It feels like some combination of play and meditation.

I first about someone else adopting a similar thought-process in John Stropes article on Michael Hedges' Ragamuffin.

When practicing these opening two bars, you encounter a series of challenges. Here are the two bars, followed by a correlating bit from Stropes' essay:

First two bars of Ragamuffin by Michael Hedges.

Clip from Stropes' article

Maybe it seems obvious, but if you've ever practiced this tune, you know that this piece contains a series of brain teasers, brain teasers for your muscle memory - if that makes sense. Whether you're a fingerstyle diehard or not, I suggest checking Stropes' book out.

One goal of this blog is to share my thoughts around music, and this reductive practice is key for me. It's key for me personally, in developing my ability like I just said, but also key in my composing. For some reason, with me, I am repetitive in practice but avoiding outright repetition in my music. More on that another time!

Mick Goodrick Triads 1

If you aren't familiar with Mick Goodrick's writing on the guitar, you're missing out. His book The Advancing Guitarist is one I've come back to again and again since I bought it 25 years ago (!) after reading his amazing articles in Guitar Player magazine in the 80s. This book is well known to many, so I won't belabor what so many before me have said, but to sum up: this is the rare (RARE) book that continues to give back no matter how many times one revisits. The only truly humble guitar book I own.

I've been diving deep into his triad material beginning on p. 39 for the last 2 weeks, and have had a series of epiphanies thanks to just… taking some hours and doing exactly as Mick suggests. He begins this section by reiterating fundamental music theory around triads - root position, and 1st and 2nd inversions. One page later, the reader is invited to

go ahead and learn all C major, C minor, C augmented and C diminished triage, all inversions, all registers, all locations, in closed as well as spread voicings that follow.

Four staffs lay out the voicing verbosely:

After revisiting my voicings, and practicing the triad row exercise on the following page, I've found a groove in voice leading through what initially sound like arbitrary progressions. Mick lays out a 48 item 'triad row', using every permutation of maj/min/aug/dim across the 12 possible roots, then generates progressions ala circle of fifths, but with varying intervals. I've been struck by how interesting these progression can sound, particularly playing with how you apply the type of triad. Here are the roots according to consistenly applied intervals (all on C):

Min 2nd: 
C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C

Maj 2nd:
C D E F# G# A# C

Min 3rd: 
C Eb Gb A C

Maj 3rd:
C E G# C

Perfect 4th (circle of fourths):
C F Bb Eb Ab Db Gb B E A D G C 

Tritone :) :
C F# C

Perfect 5th:
C G D A E B F# C# G# D# A# F C

Minor 6th:
C Ab E C

Major 6th:
C A F# D# C

Minor 7th:
C Bb Ab Gb E D C

Major 7th:
C B A# A G# G F# F E D# D C# C  

You don't have to use the same interval every time, of course. Mick alternates between maj and min 3rds. You can alternate between as many or few intervals as you like. How about:

Major 3rd, perfect 5th:
C E B D# A# D A C# G# C G B F# A# F A E G# D# G D F# C# F C 

Applying the 4 triad types to these progressions in a serial fashion yields some interesting results. I've been generating progressions (whether randomly ala Mick's Triad Row, or with some recipe as above) and applying the triad types, THEN voice leading through the results using one set of 3 strings.

For example:

My progression:

C E B D# A# D A C# G# C G B F# A# F A E G# D# G D F# C# F C 

My triad series:

M m M m + o M o M +


C Em B D#m A#+ Do A C#o G# C+ G Bm F# A#m F+ Ao E G#o D# G+ D F#m C# Fm C 

I pick 3 strings (D, G and B strings, here), and voice lead through my triads. A bit of a workout first time through, but interesting results come from diving deep.