Category Archives: Blog Post

Building Blocks

“Building Blocks”

by Tony Scaltz

When I was a kid, way before I got into music, I very much looked up to my Uncle Joe, my mother’s brother. I have memories of him taking me into Philadelphia for the first time to see the 76’ers play, and he always had a coolness about him that any kid could latch onto. I mean, he drove a ‘64 gun metal gray Corvette Stingray that you would hear before you would see. This thing’s exhaust was so ridiculously loud, the neighbors knew it would be mere minutes before all of us kids would gather on the street to fight to be the first to be blinded by the lasers of sunlight dancing off his polished chrome fenders.

Joe listened to classic rock, too,…and we’re talking like ZZ freakin Top. He would take me for a ride in the Stingray, pull just far enough away that the family couldn’t hear, and blast “Legs” on his system, while showing me what a muscle car could really do.

My Uncle Joe was defining cool in the late 70’s and early 80’s. One evening, when I was about 12 years old, he took me to a local basketball game, and we hung out in seats right near some of the players where I promptly received a thorough education on Dr.J and the mechanics of the perfect “hook” shot. But, my mind was about to be blown to smithereens with a new level of coolness once we left the stadium:

He approached the Stingray.

I put on my seatbelt.

He opened up and pounded back a can of Budweiser.

Crushed it. Tossed it.

Jumped in the seat…and away we went…

If that wasn’t America, I don’t know what is.

It makes complete sense that Joe and I stayed in touch a lot over the subsequent years, especially when I was in my late teens and got close to his children, becoming more of a sibling to them than a cousin. But, it was also around this time that Joe discovered I was really into music. He took it upon himself to get me into the bands that are still my go-to’s after three decades.

One night, we had to take my mom to the airport for some conference or something, and after we dropped her off at the terminal, we both got back into his huge Extra Heavy Duty Ford F-100,050…you know, the kind that needed that small ladder to access the passenger seat.

No sooner were we at cruising velocity when he says to me, “Do you like The Wall?”

I was beyond ashamed to admit that I had never heard of this seminal album in music history (ironically, years later I met Brian Christian, who was one of the engineers on that album…but that’s a story for another day).

Uncle Joe said, “Listen to this and tell me how this is music for you.”

What followed was the most sonically life altering two hours of musical magnitude and disturbance that to this day, even during moments of silence, haunt spaces in my head. On that ride home, with Floyd on my brain, no words were exchanged between us…no need. I came home and went right to work on a new level of my musicianship, one where sounds existed as real entities in physical spaces, and if I could only learn how to manipulate those entities, then I could become, in a sense, a constructor- a builder of Music.

Fast forward a few years, and I was somehow no longer that excitable kid, full of wonder at new information and sounds; I was confused, angry, in conflict with people for reasons I couldn’t grasp, but worst of all, I felt as if I had no direction or purpose. At this time, I had gone to work with Joe in his business. He was a pharmacist and owned a couple of pharmacy/convenience stores. I was happy to have a job to pay some of my bills, at least to show that I was not being a completely useless member of society until I became established in music.

Ah, though to quote Zach Braff: “Your body goes through puberty in your teens, but your mind goes through it in your twenties.”

Hence, now at 21 years old, I was in the throes of what the ancients called “the psychomachia”, which literally translates into the battle of the self, or internal war. Have you ever seen that sequence in TV shows and movies, where a man is visited by the angelic and demonic parts of himself on his shoulders? Well, that’s the nice version of it. A true psychomachia for a young, confused mind has the potential to wreck havoc on the only thing that matters to that youth: an identity.

My identity, not only as a musician and artist, but as a human being in general was being mutilated by a sickness of mind. And, I was in the process of succumbing to this destruction of myself as a person of agency and talent, when Joe, in the same coolness he exuded with his knowledge of muscle cars, basketball, and Budweisers, pulled me aside and said to me, “Haven’t you figured it out yet?”

“No, what’s that?” I asked.

“Why are you so confused?” he prodded.

“I can’t get it, Joe,” I said taking short breaths. “What if I never figure myself out?”

“Tony, ” he said, “Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will you be.”

And that was it. There was no expounding of this new wisdom. It was almost as if I should have known this all along. What is really strange is that the more I sat with the idea, the more I realized he was right. This idea did not come from him, directly; it was already in there…I was already in there. I already knew who I needed to be, and the detritus in my life telling me I wasn’t very good, or I would go on to establish nothing but a long line of failures was, in the end, just complete bullshit.

See, I figured that the only person who could ever exert power over my life was, is, and always will be me.

That lesson was like now having too much freedom in my pocket. Where do I go from here? I needed to figure out how to allow patience to do its job, how to slowly embrace the things I was uncomfortable with in order to view them as necessary in my development, as opposed to some estranged brothers in fierce battles.

The truth is that I am still building and suspect that I will never be completed. And while I am much happier in terms of my musicianship, I am fearful for the day I wake up and think that I may be a finished project. I hope that never happens, because aside from learning about coolness, and that girls really dig guys with beards, what I took from those years with my uncle is that those blocks you sometimes hate to haul around with you carry more good weight than what you’re building.

A Musician Who Doesn’t Play?

“A Musician Who Doesn’t Play?”

by Tony Scaltz

Maybe you’ve been listening to our show for a while now. Honestly, I very much hope that you have been. And, if you’ve been listening to the three of us talk about everything from the gauge of strings we use to our philosophies of how to correctly baste a turkey (that’s coming up on our Thanksgiving episode), it’s probably safe to say that you can tell where all three of us stand on performance, teaching, writing, gear, band etiquette, etc. What you may not have yet figured out is how can there be a musician with a clear, deep knowledge of the mysterious workings of music, with the equally deep desire to not make a living as a performer? Come on…I know you were asking that question, right?

Well, I can’t speak for Aaron’s take on why he took a hiatus from live performances, especially with his compositional and guitar prowess; I can only give you my take on things and how it came to be that a guitarist with over 28 years of playing experience and experimentation made a deliberate and conscious choice to throw away a promising performance career.

At age 19, I left the Berklee College of Music in Boston, not because I didn’t think it was a good school. If anything, the school was and still remains a veritable hub of thinking and performing musicians, and I would recommend the school to any upcoming virtuosic musician. No…I left because I had my first experience with a now very old friend, one that has kept me away from social gatherings on numerous occasions, one that causes me to sweat at the mere sight of crowded places, and one that vetoed my confidence in my own musical abilities for decades.

Keep in mind that when I left Berklee I was just beginning to feel the tendrils of this monster, with a confusion as to why my mind was telling me to stick out my coursework, while my hands were writing the check for the bus fare out of Boston to some unknown geographic.

The years that followed my exodus from the Berklee school were marked by castigations from people I was close to, sleepless nights concerning my next move, and even questioning whether music was right for me anymore. Well, after many examinations of my own desires, dreams, and professional pursuits, there was a singular truth in the distance: as much as I wanted to be guitarist on stage in front of millions of adoring fans, I simply was not a performer. And it wasn’t because I didn’t have the skills on stage; it was because I am a sufferer of something called ‘social anxiety disorder’.

There may have been a time in my 20’s, when I would have been too ashamed to even tell this to a close friend, let alone an audience in my blog. But, with age comes wisdom I guess…it also brings with it a sense of not really caring about what people think of me anymore. So, in the end I’m writing about this today to give some context to musicians who may be in a similar situation and struggling to bridge the gap between the intense love of music and the incapacitating fear of being the center of attention.

Living with an anxiety disorder is a very difficult thing, not only for yourself but for family and friends who need you, and in some ways, rely on you to be strong and fully functional. It did take me until my 40th birthday to come to terms with the fact that while I may feel my physiology fly out of control during anxiety-laden moments, the one thing I can always control is how I react to those moments, which then dictates how I speak and act around those that need me most. This was very much a 20-year realization, but the important part is that I can now explain why my career in music diverged from the expected path of recognition and respect, and in a lot of ways this gives me a metaphorical slap-in-the-face. The stinging-waking up kind.

I am not, nor ever will be a performing musician, but I am a hell of a teacher.

I am a player, but I can’t play for others.

I am a talker, but I rarely speak.

What is interesting is that I finally learned how to use my introversion in unorthodox ways…in a sense to weaponize it in order to produce ideas, works, and projects that still connect beyond the stage lights. One of the most glorious things about self-discovery is that once you find out who you are and how you tick in that brain of yours, you’ll most often find it was in moments when you were present in the world, and not stuck in others’ expectations, or things that you screwed up 25 years ago, or over obsessions of a future inspired by someone else’s life…who has any time for that?

So now, I embrace my weird brain. I’m not the most intelligent person I know, certainly not the one completely free of ignorance.

I’m just a weird guy. And I know it. And I like it because that’s all I know how to be.

So, maybe someday if I ever drum up the courage to sell tickets to one of my concerts, go ahead and buy one….just don’t be surprised if when the curtain and lights come up, I’m there but not there.

Feed Back

“Feed Back”

by Tony Scaltz

I have been a musician all of my life. In fact, it is very difficult to remember a time when I wasn’t involved with something to do with making music. I can recall moments of my childhood when I harbored an intense curiosity to learn things, and I am proud to say that I maintained such an attitude within my own education to this day. What is strange is that I easily recognize that during the course of my musical evolution, I drifted away from being a player into that of a learner…and there lies the path to growth and success in personal and professional life.

I need to slightly amend my opening line: I have been a teacher all of my life. I began in the craft of musical instruction around age 17, when my teacher first sat me down to discuss the possibility of becoming an apprentice instructor….now at 42, it’s easy to see how long I’ve been training people to grow in their musicality. Teaching has been part of me for so long now, that it is likewise difficult to imagine a time before it, and as the power of introspection can often provide light in darkness, I can, at the time of this writing, clearly see that my early desires and pursuits in the field of musical understanding were simply markers on the road to teaching. I know that without a strict dedication to my own musicianship, my ability to teach and train musicians would falter and become ineffective over time. So, now I recognize the feedback loop of learning and teaching, teaching and learning, that has rooted itself firmly in the core of my philosophy, my pedagogy, and my way of living as an artist.

Interesting that through this reflection I arrived at the term ‘artist’. In anticipation of the content of Episode 009: Art is What You Can Get Away With (a phrase I borrowed shamelessly from Andy Warhol), I love to consider the fact that I can live as an artist in the same way my educational core has guided almost every aspect of my actions and decisions- that is I want to wake people up. Yeah, the money is nice, and the recognition is fun too. I mean, who wouldn’t want to sit back and have a complete stranger tell you that your work on this planet has resonated with them in some deep way that provided comfort or insight just when they most needed it? These perks are quite enjoyable, but for me the joy is to know that I helped someone attain an awareness of something previously darkened by a lack of attention or understanding. That has impact. That has depth. That is the ultimate currency in our field.

Every year, I get students who say to me they now wish to go into education as a result of the growth they have experienced during our time of study. Again, this is the feedback I most respond to: the knowledge that my teaching has awakened in my student a love for learning so profound that the only clear path (the one that they can now see) is to, in turn, awaken others. Truthfully, the only way to gain the most authentic understanding of your own shortcomings and strengths in your artistry is to teach others how to do the same. For some strange reason of logic and irony, finding the words to articulate an idea awakens not only the student but the teacher as well, and as one of my favorite humanist teachers, the late Leo Buscalgia, used to say “you can’t give to others what you don’t already possess for yourself”.

So, if you Fret Buzzards are considering a career in music teaching, please know that this is imperative work. If you don’t commit to a deep curiosity of how nature operates in the form of sound, and subsequently show others this endless magic, who really will? If you never had that one teacher to illuminate the path for you, would you even be here reading and playing and composing today?

Teachers are students-students are teachers.
We’re the coolest feedback loop.

A Signature Sound

“A Signature Sound”

by Tony Scaltz

Having a productive discussion about guitar tone is akin to examining how one creates a distinctive voice in art. Both are elusive pursuits and seem to carry connotations of “you’re either born with it or not”, or “great tone comes from years of experimentation…if you’re lucky”. Such sentiments are useless for students in terms of musical growth, so today I will be so bold to suggest unorthodox approaches toward the cultivation of a signature sound to your playing, one that you can continue to develop over time yet feel comfortable enough with to settle into and express fluent musical ideas.

I love the adage “tone is in the fingers”. It makes me a bit giddy actually, but what we need to teach ourselves and students is that a malleable voice on our instruments comes not just from the fingers themselves but from the sum total of movements our fingers make on a dynamic string. For me, the essence of establishing a signature voice in your playing is first gaining an understanding that “string tone” is an array of dynamic interactions between harmonic nodes, player attacks, and tensions and releases applied to string manipulations.

To begin, let’s consider how the brain is able to differentiate between the sound produced via a fretted violin note and that of a guitar. Physically, the strings on both instruments are similar types of wire, and the mechanics for producing pitch on these strings also share similarities. So, how can our ears separate the harmonic elements of string A from string B, then instantly identify the sources for the tones produced as unique to each instrument? The answer lies in a type of musical string DNA: properties of the string itself, harmonic overtones, and interactions with the player come together in a “soup” that bears a signature for that tone on that instrument.

Now, consider the variations of physical movements that influence our string attacks, sustains, vibratos, and decays. If we can now make these physical movements on a string deliberate, then we can start to influence the string dynamics to create a wider timbral palette.

For example, let’s say that I am approaching a high D on the B string at the end of a melodic phrase. I know that D has a mellow richness to it, being only two semi-tones away from C, which also carries an inherent color of lightness. I want to establish a “character” to the warm color that D exudes. What is the best way for me to execute warmth on this final tone of my phrase? Apply a medium-light attack on a the B string closer to the neck, while simultaneously allowing the pitch to “breathe” for the equivalent of a 1/16th note before I apply a deep, but not wide or erratic vibrato. I want to elongate the sustain of this note and intermittently apply a small bend or vibrato, then before decay try striking the string on another location to access a different harmonic node. All the while, keep your fretting finger stable yet relaxed and aware of small movements of the string in the moment of the attack.

Now here’s the trick: allow your fretting finger to increase and decrease tension on the board to extract a diverse palette of color around this tonal center. I do this by listening not just to the “aggregate” pitch, but all of the underlying harmonics in the fretted note and move my finger around the fret space to pull out some of these partials.

Once I get a feel for timbral movements within the tone, I can extend to a larger musical phrase by emulating a more “vocal” approach to my attack and think about how I can “tense and release” my finger movements within a fret space to simulate what happens when singers “shape” their embouchure and glottal regions. I play a few more notes in both directions of my tonal center (in this case, D) and use the contour (directional shape) of the line I’m making as the basis for adjustments to my finger movements.

Try this too: a sneaky little movement that many guitarists don’t know about (I didn’t myself up until a few years back) is to make microtonal adjustments to any fretted pitch by pushing the string toward the bridge with your fretted finger. Thanks to Steve Kimock, who wrote extensively on the nature of purer guitar tunings and techniques such as the above mentioned to help us compensate for the effects of fretting on “accurate tone”.

When I work with students, I set up exercises such as these as studio explorations to see what effects on the string produce the most usable effects and disregard the movements with the least amount of timbral change from the string. In the studio, I’ve found that as students mature musically these nuances to their playing dominate more of their attention as they play through phrasing…and that’s good: we want to become highly proficient on our instruments so we can move beyond the “note” into regions that form a stronger basis for art.

And if you’re more a “just grab my guitar and enjoy what comes out” type of player, imagine if you could play the same note 50 times, each time with a different character.

Experiment, experiment, experiment….and do all of this while recording.

As my teachers used to tell me, “you want to be recognized for your tone? Well, tape doesn’t lie!”

Metronomic Studies

Metronomic Studies

by Tony Scaltz


There are solid techniques for using the metronome beyond checking tempo. I’ll give you two exercises below: the first was taught to me by my teachers years ago and really helped with my technical speed. The second I constructed when I was in State College, PA and still use in order to hear rhythms at various BPM.

Exercise 1: begin at 60 BPM (beats per minute) and choose a lick that is comfortable for you to do smoothly and accurately at slow tempo but is challenging at high tempo. Play the lick using 8th notes at this tempo. Make sure to play the lick ascending and descending. When you have completed one “cycle” of asc/desc, stop and increase the BPM on the metronome by 3. You will now be at 63 BPM and run the cycle again. One clean cycle is all that is required, and you do not have to repeat any cycle at any BPM unless your run was sloppy. Next go to 66 BPM and repeat, and continue to do this until you are in double digits. In this workout you are going for you max clean speed, which believe it or not will increase everyday. Once you hit your max BPM rate, let’s say 172, and you start to feel the lick falling apart, stop and record your max BPM on paper with the date. The reason for the 3 BPM increase is that your brain can not feel an increase in tempo below 3…imagine you went from 112 to 113. You wouldn’t know the difference, as anything under 3 BPM is unnoticeable…so 3 is the sweet spot where you can work the increase and not feel it.

Exercise 2: for this workout set a random BPM and put your guitar down for 15 minutes or so. The objective for this drill is to audiate (hear) various rhythms while randomly bending the tempo. You’ll need your notebook handy as well. On paper record your set BPM, while underneath that number construct a visual rhythmic figure. For instance, you may write in 4/4 and compose three bars of combinations of quarter and eight notes. Doesn’t matter really,  but what is important is to write something you can clap or vocalize for this following workout. Once you have a rhythm you like, go to the set BPM and either sing or clap the rhythm. Now, once this is fluid and you feel the pocket, randomly move the BPM (for instance 72 to 168), and…this is the trick…on the very next downbeat, without clapping it singing, hear the rhythm in sync with the new BPM. Sit with this new audiation for a few cycles, then sing or clap at the new BPM to “test” your accuracy. Repeat again with a new randomly chosen BPM marker. Then when you feel finished. Compose a new rhythmic figure, set at low BPM and repeat.

A variation on this drill is to simply set random BPM markers and improvise rhythmic figures while moving the tempo and staying in the pocket without falling off the rhythm…this is probably the most challenging of these drills, but the most useful in terms of live application.

“First Contact”

“First Contact”

by Tony Scaltz


I’ve been playing a lot of this video game entitled No Man’s Sky. Essentially, the objective of this game is to reach the center of an seemingly infinite universe, one that teems with landscapes, creatures, and alien artifacts that can, at times, go beyond the play experiences gamers can normally imagine.

That was how this game was sold to me, and as a massive fan of console titles over the years I reeled from the ecstasy of such promises. I have to admit that I became hooked on it almost immediately and drew into deep reservoirs of wonder at the sights all around my character, both on planets and in deep space. Yet over time, I committed the gravest of sins by any gamer: I ignored the meditative joy of the experience for my nagging critique over the need for a “goal” to reach. For days, this shift away from pure discovery of the immediate to the search for the next thing to do took the wind out of my starship’s sails and left me with a general sense of disappointment I had not felt in a game for quite some time. But, like all moments when my mind wakes up from the slog of ignorance, I realized that the point of the game is simply to experience the play, to listen to the ways in which background rains place me in an alien environment, to feel what it’s like to have your bones shake upon entering a planetary atmosphere, to feel and hear the crunch of rock under your boots….in essence to let the game be. Once I allowed myself to become present in the game, everything changed: discovery was the objective, not just the elation of new sights and sounds, but a sense that with discovery there is a change in the participant.

I relay this experience to you because I feel that our musical pursuits operate in a very similar manner. For years, I rarely took enjoyment from the hours of theoretical study and technical practice on my chosen instrument. The grinding of my musical experiences was never a journey; it was strictly goal oriented. And, to be frank such an approach served me remarkably well in my formative playing years. I rose quickly to technical proficiency, played with professional groups and solo performers, won scholarships to some of the best music conservatories in the country, and proudly created three successful music schools. But the goal oriented mind set I cultivated over two decades produced a “player” that grew tired of the industry, weary of my artistry, and devoid of the joy that first captured me at a young age- that time of the innocent wonders of new experiences. Hence, at 8 years old I came into first contact with music, and while I knew nothing I loved everything; near my 40’s I knew much and loved less.

So the question is am I now stranded in a musical universe? The simple answer is absolutely yes, but I love that about my work now. If a new student asked me (as they always do) how long it takes to get good, I would have no other option but to tell them they are asking a dead question. Instead, I would sit that student down, look them straight in the eyes, and ask them why they came to me in the first place. I’d ask what it is about music that makes them feel alive, like getting out of bed in the morning with a purpose you can’t pin down but know is there. I’d tell them that the only purpose of music is to experience….and through the art of true listening discover the listener.

That is the game I would sell.