Breaking Boundaries


tristan150Part 1 – Choices: The Impossible Dream

Hello Guitarristas,

I can’t help but feel that my last column was a bit heavy on rules and things of that sort….

For the next couple of columns, I’d like to focus on the opposite.



Your individual identity as an artist. Expressing yourself, and the true meaning of the song. Forging a sonic signature.

Choices. They are what define you. In life as well as in art.

All music is made up of scales and arpeggios. And yes, all musicians have to know them. Up, down and sideways. Regardless of the style or genre you play – jazz, classical, alternative rock, metal, whatever. I don’t care what kind of band you’re in. Even DJ’s and remixers (the best ones, anyway) have an intuitive sense of key centre and song construction…. There’s no way around this.

But what you do with them on your own time is your own affair. Think of them as colours, and the music as a canvas.  They can express anything you’d like. Any emotion. Even feelings for which there are no names. Yes…. especially those.

The ones that primary colours just can’t capture. Happiness, shot through with tragedy… Hatred mixed with lust.  The lie that’s leavened with truth,  just enough of it to sucker you in. The places… between. The stuff of all poetry and art.

Here’s a recent example from my own experience.

I was invited to back up a jazz singer at the Royal York, a very prestigious heritage hotel in downtown Toronto. I almost never get this kind of call. So naturally, I jumped at the chance.

New experiences always inspire me, and lead me in directions I’d never have considered… Of course, the fact that a free meal and $200 cash were offered had absolutely nothing do with it!

I met the singer and pianist, lovely guys, and we proceeded to run through the charts. The set consisted of what I’d call pop standards: Neil Diamond, that sort of thing. One of the tunes was “The Impossible Dream”. It was the title character’s big number from a film called Man of La Mancha, which became a hit in the early 70’s, and was covered by many artists, including Jaques Brel and Frank Sinatra. It’s a beautiful song, with a soaring, romantic melody.

The singer wanted me to extend the intro. So the pianist pedaled the opening chord, an Ab major 7th, while I noodled around over it.

I was pretty dissatisfied with this. It didn’t sound dreamlike, or impossible. In fact, it sounded safe and ordinary. Comforting. Lounge-y. Bleah.

This wasn’t a Sonic Youth gig, so I couldn’t go all postmodern and contorted… but there was no reason to be soporific and boring, either.

After the chart run-through, I went back to the intro, hoping to find something a little more compelling about it. Fortunately I had the blessing of the event organizer, who wanted some nice, atmospheric music for the guests as they entered the ballroom. As I was playing anyway, I was only too happy to oblige.

Here’s what I came up with: instead the Ab major 7th chord. I substituted an Ab minor with  a major 7th and added 9th, voiced like this:


I had a Line 6 DL4 with me, because it’s a great Swiss Army knife. It can do delay, flanging, chorus, backwards effects… and looping. So I looped the chord with some delay on it, and layered the same chord on top of that a couple of times with neck vibrato, gently bending the neck back and forth as I played. This obscures the loop point, and makes it all lush and chorus-y.

Now I had a haunting, mysterious-sounding pad.

So I noodled around on top of that, in Ab melodic minor.

The result was anything but ordinary. Now it was a dream, alright… not only an impossible one, but a slightly disquieting one, as well…. in fact, borderline disturbing. Beautiful, but in an eerie, unsettling, otherworldly way. As if something was subtly wrong, and you can’t put your finger on exactly what it is.

Kind of like this.


Try it and see what happens. For me, reality started sliding around a bit, in a rather enjoyable way. And it sounded kind of Spanish, in keeping with the meaning of the song. It’s Don Quixote’s theme song, after all. He is a bit mad, and a Spaniard to boot.

In the end, I elected to go back to the Ab major 7th, because it made more sense in context, and created a seamless transition into the body of the song. But I soloed over it using the major pentatonic – through a backwards delay. This set up the song nicely, while remaining somewhat dreamlike and enigmatic. The result was reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix in one of his quieter, more lyrical moods. I managed to avoid sounding like a lounge guitarist, but still supported the song, and the singer, who was paying me, remember… And I learned something new along the way.


Mission accomplished.


This is nothing unusual… I’m not a jazz player, but I was doing essentially what jazz musicians have always done. You find the boundaries, caress them lovingly… then slip through them before anyone notices. And you are in a new world. And since you’ve started with something vaguely familiar, you’ve brought the listener with you.

But mind this: You have to know where the boundary is, first. Then your transgression carries meaning.

You can just as well bring a hammer down on it instead, if that feels right. But once again, you have to know where it is.

Carlos Castenada’s Don Juan, the Native American sorcerer/mystic, claimed that you can choose a destination in your dream, and if you have sufficient power, you can wake up there.

Take that with you as you practice. And if it starts to happen, stop practicing and keep dreaming… who knows where you’ll wake up.

To read more about Tristan click HERE

Tristan's Column

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