Category Archives: RockStar

New Year Re-Solution

I’ve been playing guitar now for about 15 years and been taking serious lessons for about 5. This year I hope to push my music theory knowledge and I think I’ve discovered the key!

In October of 2014 I decided to come up with a solution for my unfortunate habit of practicing guitar without intent. My guitar teacher is strict with his studying: “If you’re playing guitar, you’re not practicing guitar.” The difference between playing and practicing being casual enjoyment vs. progression. My solution in October was geeking out. I made a spreadsheet to keep track of my practicing, and for the most part I was able to keep on task for the last quarter of 2014.

For the New Year, I revamped my method further and adjusted my spreadsheet to log my progress through four different areas:

1. Scales – 15 minutes going through Major, Minor and the modes. These are done with two cycles of 12 where I step through the circle of fifths, one key per day alternating between starting C on the sixth and fifth string
2. Etudes – Three Allen Hanlon etudes per day, tracking tempo and switching etudes only upon clean performance at a reasonable tempo (different per etude).
3. Jazz Study – Mark Levine’s Jazz Theory book. Mastery of one page per day
4. Song Analysis – Fakebook, one page per day chord analysis

This series takes between 45-60minutes.

If I can keep this up for all of 2015, I will complete both the jazz theory book and the Fakebook (both of which have approximately 350pages). My hope? To be able to immediately find key transitions and be able to identify and nail modes for soloing (or even just scale arpeggios) at 160bpm.



My paternal Grandparents were all sorts of deep into the world of music. My Grandmother was a pianist and my Grandfather played a handful of instruments from the guitar to the accordion. This weekend my father bequeathed to me my Grandfather’s guitar and amp.


The guitar is a 1960(ish) Silvertone tobacco sunburst archtop guitar. It has three pickups with independent tone and volume controls that give the guitar a versatility close to (if not surpassing) my PRS513. The Silvertone is rich with evocative scratches and dings that lay out a history of active use versus display case claustrophobia. The action is great and the sound is raw and metallic in a pleasant retro way.

The amp is a vega tube amp. It’s adorably small but still has bite. The outside has been completely redone and it has a beautiful new fabric cover and leather handle. It’s got some whitenoise issues but I’m hoping with a little electrical TLC that the sound will clear up. It is the perfect practice/small gig amp.


I love the look of this setup. Both pieces are beautifully aged. The ‘tobacco sunburst’ and the fabric covered Vega suggest a dim lit smokey jazz or blues bar. The Silvertone guitar series were sold by Sears Roebuck up until the 70’s. They were cheap guitars at the time with surprisingly good sound.

For the past few years I’ve been practicing exclusively on my Carl Barney archtop, usually without an amp. The Barney looks so modern compared to the Silvertone. The two guitars make a great pair.

These DiDonato heirlooms will see much attention in the years to come.


At Alicia’s recommendation I recently sought out some guitar etudes to improve my technique. The book I found is a series of guitar etudes written by Allen Kreutzer. They are a well known group of etudes that target various specific skills. I try to spend at least 20% of my practice time going through these etudes.

I’ve been working on these etudes for about 8 weeks or so. Last night at my guitar lesson Tony casually mentioned that he studied with Allen Kreutzer.


Let it be said that this is pretty much how every single discussion about influential musicians goes with Tony.

Music Education!

With my extended (~60min) work commute from West Hartford to East Haven, I have been listening to lessons on CD from the Great Courses program. The strength of the courses, not unlike at any institution, is entirely in the quality of the teacher.

Thankfully the instructor of much of the music series, Professor Robert Greenburg, is excellent. So far I’m on my third set of discs.

1. How to listen to and understand great music (Greenburg)
2. Elements of Jazz, from Cakewalks to Fusion (Bill Messenger)
3. Understanding the Fundamentals of Music (Greenburg)

The courses, specifically Greenburg’s, have been eye opening. Greenburg focuses on classical music genres. I have learned WAY more than I thought I would have. Before the course I wouldn’t have been able to tell you the difference between Bach and Stravinsky. Now, I feel pretty confident in identifying music to specific Classical eras.

Further, despite casual music for most of my life, the Fundamentals of Music has taught me a ton on the workings of musical mechanics. It is admittedly academic with a fair amount of time being spent on definition and word origin, but it’s valuable information and I’m pleased with what I’ve learned.

In particular, two of my long-time questions of music have been answered

1. Question: C Major scale has no flats or sharps. Why the heck did they choose to label the EASIEST scale with the letter C. Why not start the easiest chord with the easiest letter, A?
Answer: A minor is the relative minor of C major. And apparently back in the day, the minor scales was more musically important than the major scales. So those that made the decision, chose to put the most important minor scale with the fewest accidentals as the A. That makes sense!

2. Question: Why is it that the 7th note of each scale, as you progress through the sharps of different keys, is always the last sharped? For example, key of G: F# (that’s the 7th.) Key of D, F# and C# (C# is the 7th). It works like this the whole way! But Flats? No 7ths there!
Answer: I was thinking about this entirely incorrectly. Instead if you look at the circle of fifths the signatures AND the accidentals follow in fifths and fourths as you progress around the circle. The 7th thing works out on the sharps. On the flat side the flats progress on the 3rd.


I strongly recommend Greenburg’s courses.

Broken Finger

Earlier this year I spent somewhere near to 10 weeks in Ohio on an installation job. While I was out there, I got my pinky finger bashed between two metal plates. It was very painful.

Turns out I broke it.

I had to baby it a bit due to pain, but with the aggressive schedule in Ohio and my stubbornness, I never went to a doctor. It healed all wonky like and now I can no longer straighten that finger.

That's as straight as it gets.

That’s as straight as it gets. Also, this is a weird perspective.

The worst part is that it’s on my left hand. That’s my fingering hand for guitar. Except… my guitar playing has improved.

I have had trouble for a long time with keeping my pinky finger close to the strings. The closer your fingers to the strings, the less time it takes to depress a string – the faster you can play.

Now that I can’t straighten my finger, it is forced to bend closely towards the strings. I can wail!

While it doesn’t speak highly of my guitar playing if broken fingers improve my performance, I find it fitting that metal indirectly improved my ability to shred.


My guitar teacher and I regularly make fun of one another. It’s all in good fun. I should have expected his jab when I wrote a Cb instead of a Bb on some sheet music:

Tony Guitar: that’s Bb.
Mike D: Ahh, right right. that’s what I meant. I’m stupid.
Tony Guitar: You’re not stupid Mike. You’re very stupid.

Ha! Well played Tony. Well played.

Down Under

One thing I learned from the climbing community was to respect differing risk/reward ratios. Most people scoff at climbing without any gear, others retreat from trad climbing (placing your own protection), and while there are those that have difficulty leaving the security of a climbing gym there are some that can’t think to approach a climbing wall – even in the most protected environment.

I think as a general rule the more you learn about the challenge that’s facing you and the more frequently you push the envelope, the easier it is to blaze new personal trails.

Perhaps what I respect most about Sander is his evolved comfort zone. He’s okay with giving things a go while the rest of us might feel more comfortable taking a back seat to the action. His reward is a life filled with the unexpected.

And thusly I announce Sander’s amazing Australia adventure.

Sander took a month off from work (May 1-27), flew down to Australia, and has been making a solo motorcylce trip across the country from Perth to Sydney. A 2700 mile journey – much of it through Australian back country.


Sander’s been sending me frequent updates of his adventure. I’ll post the especially noteworthy ones here.

So far, he’s reached Ceduna. 8 days in and he is far ahead of schedule. Apparently he’s giving himself some wiggle room just in case it starts to rain. I asked him how he has avoided Australia’s surplus of dangerous everything. So far, no snakes.

Here is Sander’s list:

Snakes: nothing yet, but I remain suspicious.
Camels: After dark they sleepwalk, kinda, and are bad news.
Eagles: They feast on the dead kangaroos on the side of the road. Then when I come along, they take off…slowly…sometimes in my direction. They are gorgeous, but HUGE. Imagine getting hit by a 45lb dodgeball at 70mph.
Kangaroos: Out West the gray roos roamed. Up to 100kg-ish. Out here? Red roos, which get up to 10 foot tall. Spotted a mob yesterday near the road, my heart just recently started beating normally again.

Fun fact: Acceptable collective nouns for kangaroos include: Mob, Herd, and Troop

A random spot of Sander's trip via Google Streetview

A random spot of Sander’s trip via Google Streetview

Sander, I am exceedingly jealous of your trip. Good luck out there.