Started: Age 11 in 1985
Styles: Blues, Funk, Jazz
Books Publications: (National Guitar Workshop Publications/Alfred) Funk Styles for the Guitar
Recordings: With various artists
Gear: '72 Telecaster, Fender Deluxe Reverb
Lesson Text: Learn to Play Guitar With Dennis McCumber Dennis' guitar lessons are designed for the beginner and intermediate Blues guitar player. His clear and methodical way of teaching makes his lessons easy to follow. For beginners, Dennis discusses the main ingredients that go into Blues playing: open A7 and E7 chords, root 6 and root 5 barre chords, solo construction over I-IV-V chord progression, switching from open to 5th position, and how to construct a 12-bar Blues solo. You'll learn Blues signature techniques such as bending, double stops, and turnarounds, and some classic riff examples. At the intermediate level, Dennis expands on the subjects from the beginner level. You'll learn the major pentatonic boxes 3, 4 and 5, followed by position switching. Discover more two-string chords, the B9 chord in open position, and learn to play a 12/8 Blues in A major and minor.
Dennis McCumber is a teacher and guitarist from Tarrytown, New York with a specialty in blues. He has written for Guitar Player Magazine and taught at the National Guitar Workshops. Inspired and infuenced by artists such as Freddy King, B.B. King, Jimmy Hendrix, and John Scofield, he shares his talents on the guitar on recordings of many artists.
What are you listening to these days? A lot of the music I'm listening to is stuff from New Orleans - some of the newer jazz stuff that's coming from there, and the older traditional jazz and blues... a lot of the piano players... [drummer] Stanton Moore... Astral Project... Professor Longhair... I've always gravitated to that feel. I've always liked the Meters, so I'm just trying to branch out from that. I got interested in listening to Charlie Hunter a bunch of years ago, and from him, and researching some of the people he's played with, I've been exposed to a lot of different music. When did you start to play? I had an uncle who always had a guitar in the corner. He didn't play a lot, but also didn't mind if I walked up and played around with them. Eventually he showed me a couple of songs. My mother's best friend was a piano teacher, and whenever we were over there, it was like a magnet - I had to go ever and sit on the bench. My mother would never let me take lessons, because I had no way of practicing. When did you start to notice that your playing was different from everyone else's? When did you find your voice as a player? I made the decision to do it for a living, and my point of view and my philosophy I guess have driven me to sort of be different. It wasn't, "Oh, I'm different from everybody else, so I must have to do this." After I played for a couple of years and took lessons - pretty much by seventh grade I knew, "This is what I'm going to do." Who did you listen to when you were getting started? The biggest things for me were Led Zeppelin and Alice Cooper. I really liked that stuff when I was a kid. Originally I would have loved to have been a drummer. When I first got into Led Zeppelin it was just the overall sound. Then I honed in on the drums aspect of it, but I grew up in apartments - and no way was I every going to get a drum set. So I had to go for the next best thing, and that was guitar. Do you still listen to Alice Cooper? No. If it comes on the radio, I don't turn it off, but I don't purposely put it on. Jimi Hendrix was another huge one for me, and that still is someone I go back and listen to a lot. The way he voiced chords and plays little lines in and around the chords - I love to hear that. I'd much rather hear him play through a chord progression than take a solo over a chord progression. I think it's beautiful the way he does that. Are there one or two core ideas that you try to make sure every student learns? One thing I try to get across to them is how to develop chords - how to take the mystery out of chords. I show them the CAGED system - how you can get all the chord voicings you need from those chords (C, A, G, E and D), and how you can get different sounding C chords and different sounding E Chords just by moving those around. Sometimes it strikes a huge bell for them, and other times they're like, "Oh, well, whatever." A lot of my teachers in the beginning didn't necessarily take the time to stop and explain stuff, for whatever reason. But later on, if it had been shown to me that these simple five chords that you learned in the first few months you're playing guitar are where all the different chord voicings were derived from, maybe it would have made more sense to me, as opposed to every single chord being, "Oh, crap, now I've got to learn this one." What makes a great teacher? One of the big things is someone who really listens and doesn't have an agenda. It's nice to have a game plan as a teacher, but I think it's more important to listen to what the student is asking for and what the student needs. Have you ever had a great teacher? Yes. The best teacher I ever had was Matt Smith of WorkshopLive. I had him when I was in college. When you took lessons from him, he had all these key little things that no one else really taught you. It seemed like he had the whole big bag of secrets that no one else taught you. He showed me the CAGED system - how to come up with different voicings and tonalities and different styles off music. He had a way of teaching the modes, showing you the notes all over the guitar neck. He taught more from a "Play it now - understand it later" point of view, and that was something that I needed at that time. I was hearing all these explanations, but I was having trouble putting it on the guitar. Whereas, when I was taking lessons with him, we were putting it on the guitar first, and it was making sense later. How do you keep your playing fresh? One of the things I try to do is transcribe a lot. And I try to transcribe different people, not only one person. Do you restrict yourself to guitar players? No, not at all. I've worked on phrasing and stuff like that for a while, and right now I'm trying to build up a little speed. Lately I've been working on some Mike Stern stuff and some Pat Martino things. I'm primarily a blues guy, I'm not a jazz person at all, but I've really like the way Stern plays. Somehow back in high school I learned about him - I don't know how - and he's one of the guys I always go back and listen to. What I like most now is practicing out of the Real Book and playing over changes. And what I like about Stern is he keeps that rock/blues guitar foundation even when he's playing over complicated changes. Do you have a practice toolkit? It's kind of funny. I have this really old laptop, and on it I have Band-in-a-Box and Transcribe; it even has an audio recording program on it. I always feel lost without it, and I use it every day. If I get an idea, I can record it; when I practice out of the Real Book it gives me the bass and the drum lines to play along with. [Transcribe] is a program that I found on-line 8-9 years ago that I really love. It puts the sound file right in front of you, nice and large, and you can just click and drag. It loops, and you can even set the loop so it gives you a second to regroup. It's a great tool for me. You can slow it down without changing pitch, and you can even retune it. If someone's tuned a half step down and you don't want to do that to your guitar, you can change it. And you can mark sections - you say, "This is where I'm working," and save it so when you open it up again, it's all right there, right where you left off. Do you have a regular practice regimen? I practice every day. I work on different things every day. I always work with the metronome for a little while, I always work on transcribing, and I always work on playing over something. I really prefer to do it in the morning, but I don't have than luxury every day. Do you have any gear you just can't live without? I have two Fender guitars. I have a Telecaster, which has been my main guitar for a long time, and I have a strat that I've been using for quite a bit. And then recently I got a Yamaha SC2100, which is basically a 335 semi-hollow body. The Fenders are hard guitars to practice on. I play them out when I play. They're set up a little bit higher, with heavier strings. You kind of have to dig in a little bit to play them. The Yamaha is set up very easy for me to play, and that's my practice guitar. The neck is nice and flat, and pretty consistent. The older Fenders - I don't know what makes them sound so good, 'cause they're always falling apart. I bought a reissue Fender Deluxe Reverb amp a few years back. For the most part I was pretty pleased with it, but it started to have some problems. So I took it to Tony Bruno to check out. He knows pretty much everything there is to know about Fender and Marshall amps. I wound up there for eight hours or something. He just kept playing with it - taking resistors and tubes out, and putting different things in. It was like being at the eye doctor - "You like it like this, or like that?" He just kept going until I couldn't take anymore and I just told him to pack it up! How's the amp? Amazing - amazing! I really love it. It's my main amp. I had a few other Fender amps, but once he did that one, I couldn't even play the other ones. I had to take them to him and have him do some work on the others as well. How often are you surprised by your playing, or what you're listening to, or music in general? I don't know if I'm every really that surprised about my playing. Sometimes I'm more surprised about how easily it will come out, as opposed to how hard I may have to work to get it to come out sometimes. I'm always looking for something in somebody else, and I think I'm almost always surprised by what other people play. I'm always looking for somebody I haven't heard about, or maybe read something about but haven't heard him or her play before. I don't very often go out and buy stuff from people that I'm very familiar with. I figure once you get two CDs by someone you've kind of heard what they do. How do you find new stuff? I read Guitar Player magazine. I read liner notes, and when I find somebody I don't know, I see if I can find out about them online. We have a feature called "Big Ears", where we suggest interesting music to our members that they might not have heard before. What would you suggest for them? One of the guys I really enjoy listening to, and has a real different take on playing is this guitar player by the name of Will Bernard. He just got signed to Palmetto Records, but he's been on other record labels. He's played with Charlie Hunter and Dr. Lonnie Smith. Right now he's on tour with Stanton Moore. He was part of this TJ Kirk group with Charlie Hunter. All they played was Thelonious Monk, James Brown, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk tunes. He has a few solo albums out which are difficult to find, but you can get a lot of stuff of his web site. He's just got this different approach that I'm not very familiar with. I really enjoy listen to him play. He's not the typical aggressive guitar player. Sort of laid back. A lot of odd time signatures. Also, he's very good with the slide. He kind of sneaks the slide in. He's got this thing where he's playing, and all of a sudden you hear a couple of notes with the slide, and all of a sudden it's gone again. I have no idea how he does it. He's also a really good piano player. He's got a real strong sense of harmony. You can hear different voicings in his chords - and by that I don't mean that he's playing odd ball chords. You can hear the melody, you can hear an inner harmony, and you can hear a bass line. You've mentioned inner voicings several times - is that a part of your playing? I don't know if it's part of my playing yet, but I'm working on it. Are there things you still find hard to do? Absolutely! You're always working on getting the music you hear in your head out. That's something I find to be one of the most challenging things. Sometimes they come out easy, sometimes they don't. I want to record a CD in the spring, and I'm playing with these guys right now. We're working up towards it. We've written about five tunes; we want thirteen at the end, to come up with a 10 or 12 song CD. And I'm pretty satisfied for the first time, with some of the stuff that's coming out. I'm pretty excited about it. Whereas two or three years ago, I'd be, like, "Well, I like it, but it's not exactly..." Is that because you're making progress at getting what you hear in your inner ear out into your fingers? Is that getting better, and that's why you're more satisfied with the tunes? Yeah, I think so. Is there a way to work on that? I don't know if there's a secret to it or not. Your ears and your fingers need to be connected before you start to play. It has nothing to do with how fluid my hands feel, it's more or less how warmed up the connection between my ears and my fingers is. One of the things I do whenever I sit down and practice is I try to sing some stuff. Sometimes it's something I've never heard before, sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad, it doesn't matter. I just sing it, and then I try to figure it out and play it as quickly as I can. Do you have a musical wish list - other instruments to learn, people to play with, artists or styles to explore? At some point I'd like to get good at playing slide guitar. I think the sound is just very cool. Are there slide players that you admire that woke up the interest in you? Ry Cooder definitely, is probably the big one. And one of my other big favorites is David Lindley. And I like to hear Sonny Landreth play with other people, although I don't necessarily like his stuff. Do you have a musical wish list? I'd love to play with Dennis Chambers. And if I had the chance to play with Dennis chambers, I'd have to get Anthony Jackson to play bass. How often, when you're playing, do you find those moments of pure music, when your head is clear, your fingers are working, there are no distractions, and it's just you and the music? Not as often as I would like. Commonly, that happens when I get to play three sets. And also when I'm playing with people that I'm not concerned are going to fall apart. When I get a chance to play with certain other people that I'm really comfortable with, that I feel are listening to what is going on, that's when it happens. Does it happen all the time? No. But on occasion it does. And when you have a few hours to play with people, that has a tendency to happen more than when you have a 45-minite set to play, and you're worried about getting set up, and this working, and that working. Do you have any practice tips we can share with our subscribers? Recording yourself - listening to yourself play, that's really important. You're your own best teacher, and your own worst critic. If you can just step back and listen to what you're playing, you'll change things very quickly. It's hard to hear someone else say, "Well, you need to do this, you need to do that...", without you hearing it for yourself.
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