Music Theory Interview With Eugene Edwards

by Tommaso Zillio

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Tommaso Zillio: Okay, this is again for another interview on music theory and composition and today we have with us Eugene Edwards, who is the guitar player for Dwight Yoakam. Hey, Eugene, how is it going?

Eugene Edwards It's going well, Tommaso, thanks for asking.

TZ: So Eugene, right now you're on tour?

Eugene Edwards Yes, we're constantly on the road.

TZ: Very good, very good. So it's one of those interviews where I get you in the middle of the action. Okay.

Eugene Edwards Exactly. Very much so.

TZ: Okay, so we have a few questions here that our readers would like to ask you. So let me start with the first here. What is your approach to composition and how do you go from inspiration to the actual notes and chords in the song?

Eugene Edwards Oh, that's a great question. Of course every song is a little different. I don't have too much of a codified process with writing songs or if I'm composing music for film or something. With songwriting, which is probably my strong suit compared to film score or composition, with songwriting, usually we'll start with a rhythm. It'll be a particular rhythm and usually the rhythm will suggest a melody, for me. And usually the rhythms or melodies will come to me when I'm far away from an instrument. Most often, if I'm working outside at my house, if I'm doing some yard work and there's silence, usually some sort of rhythm, usually inspired by another piece of music.

So it could be the rhythm guitar part to a James Brown song and I'll just recall that in my head, and I'll just kind of loop that in my brain a bit and then I might do something, here's where the theory comes in, I might do something to turn it around in a way. It's almost like someone takes a really fine jewel and if you turn it just a little bit, it refracts the light in a different way and you see it differently.

So there might be a guitar figure or a saxophone solo or something that I really like. I might transcribe it, I might transcribe the rhythm or the melody or something and then do something with it. Start it on a different beat, or cut it in half or put it in half time. Now it starts me on chasing down this new creative path. And it just started with a little musical squiggle that seemed to be sticking in my head, usually lifted from some other piece of music.

I remember one song that I wrote a while back, the melody and the chord structures all came to me because a record was playing downstairs in my house and I was upstairs cleaning. I was mishearing the music. The record that was playing downstairs, I was hearing the melody, but for some reason in my mind I was assuming it to be in a different key.

So then I realized, I worked my way downstairs and I realized, oh wait a minute, this has been in A Major all along. But in my mind, I was hearing the melody has being over a G Major scale. What I thought I heard was far more exotic than the record that was actually playing.

So I quickly grabbed a guitar and worked out the notes of this melody and how they would apply over a different scale. So that was a really nice accident, and I kind of came up with a melody and a chord structure that I don't think I would have come up with otherwise. So, those are a few things.

Other things I've done, and these are, I hate to use the word tricks, but that is what they are, take a melody of something I like. I remember scoring a short film and I needed a little melody to kind of cover a short sequence, and I took the melody from maybe a Gershwin song. I took two measures of a melody and literally turned it upside down. You know that trick?

TZ: Yes, yes, the "inverse" melody.

Eugene Edwards And it just started working from there. I didn't just use the inverse melody necessarily, but I started from there and then I would erase a note here and just start playing on piano until it does form it's own music.

But sometimes when there's a deadline, you've got to kick out some music. Obviously it's always good to be able to write down your melodic ideas, if you can, because it's good to build a little portfolio. You only need three to five notes really, I think. If you have three to five notes, a little motif that you end up whistling in the car, it is nice. Obviously, nowadays we all have iPhones with voice memo and stuff, you can sing it into a tape recorder or a digital device. But, it's good to have a portfolio to go to.

Say, you find yourself with an hour's downtime, or you're in a hotel room somewhere in Las Vegas, and you think, I should get some songwriting done. If you're not melodically inspired at that moment, go to your portfolio. There are a lot of melodies you've written down over the past few months and start kicking them around.

TZ: Yeah, that's a great idea.

Eugene Edwards Always trying to have these little things that inspire. And then lyrically, that can come from a variety of sources. Sometimes a lyric idea will then suggest the type of melody. Recently I've had this lyrical idea and it's a very optimistic lyric and I thought it would be more interesting to not have a very optimistic melody. Try and go the other day, an optimistic melody with a flat F7 in it, or avoid the major third if you can. Some way to flesh it out and make a little more compelling. So, I don't know if that answers the question.

TZ: Yes. It's just making a contrast between the lyrics and the melody. That's a great idea, too. While you're composing your songs, right now you were telling me that you're doing it mostly in your brain. I'm curious if you do actually notate the song on paper or write down some notes, and if you do so what kind of notation do you use? Standard notation or tablature or just chord notation, or you do everything in your head?

Eugene Edwards You know, a lot of it will happen in my head and if I'm not near an instrument, then I probably do write it down in proper notation. If it's just a couple of measures of the melody, and I usually will write just a chord, I'll just write A Major at the top and C Sharp Minor, just to kind of guide it along but I try not to get too fixed on the chords too soon.

But, I will, yeah, I'll write in proper notation or if I'm home I'll use LogicPro for recording and writing, so I may just play it into the keyboard and have that locked down there, and Logic has where you can print out the notation if you need it. If I'm teaching it to the band or something, though, by then I've usually made a demo. I may make a chord chart, but rarely will I do that. Usually I have a very basic demo of the song and by then the chords and the melody are pretty well fleshed out.

I'm not that fast at writing music out by hand, but, like I said, it's a great tool to have, and if I'm learning songs, or someone else's music, I will, if there's a specific guitar lick or certain motif, I will write just that one thing down in notation. I'll transcribe that, just so I have a reference. Hopefully the repetition of playing it will get it in your fingers, so to speak. But your mind can play tricks on you after a certain amount of time so it's good to look back on the written record of what that melody really was.

But, yeah, a lot of it is done in the head, usually because I'm not around an instrument all the time. If you're on a plane or a bus, but, yeah.

TZ: Do you think reading music should be on the priority list of skills for a guitar player? I'm thinking of your work here with the Dwight Yoakam Band, does he communicate with you just showing you the song, or he gives you all the charts, what is the way that you work in this case?

Eugene Edwards Well Dwight usually has a guitar riff and a melody and he has the chords, the melody worked out pretty well and he works collaboratively, he works with the band. He'll have everything set up and we'll just try and flesh it out that way and everybody kind of trying to find a part that seems suitable and then he's really good about tailoring that part a little more to fit his original vision of the song.

So he may not know exactly what the counter motif on guitar is going to be, vis-a-vis his vocal melody. He doesn't know it yet. So we'll try things and it's in the process of trying some things, usually will help find the part there, if it's in there.

Or, same thing with stretching a solo. It's a lot of fun with him because we both think in terms of real strong melody and with him we might just take it piece by piece. Sometimes you get lucky and your first crack at it will work out pretty well.

We did something, maybe last summer, I think we ended up recording a song, completely unprepared song, we were really tracking another tune, and he was capo'd at the fourth fret for what we were about to track and then he just starts playing this sort of wild blues figure in E position for him, which would have been G Sharp. And so we just fall in with him and he just made up some lyrics, and I took a couple of solos and we just finished and looked at each other like, well that was kind of fun. And we went onto the other song we were supposed to record.

Then, the next day he came back and said, "Listen to this, I worked up some lyrics, I think this'll work" and overnight, when he was listening to what we had done, I had taken maybe two or three guitar solos, and he essentially composed my one guitar solo based on parts of those three guitar solos. He said, "I like your intro on solo two, we're going to keep that. What you did going to the four chord on solo one, I wanted to keep, and then the way you get to the five from solo three."

Like, he had worked out, and I just went and re-performed the solo, but it was literally composed of things that had flown out of me the night before.

TZ: Nice.

Eugene Edwards It was a lot of fun to do it that way, because we didn't go hunting for the notes, it was really a matter of, okay, let's execute this in a way that has a little more definition to it. Which is a really fun way of doing it. I've never really worked quite that way, recording. It was kind of fun.

Back to the original question though, it usually is just some chords and a melody and a relative tempo or groove he'll have in mind. Just like most song writers, you know. Just show it to us and we try to take it from there. There's no chord charts or notation in that situation.

TZ: I see, I see. It seems you guys are working more with ear training, meaning listening and just transcribing on the spot.

Eugene Edwards Oh, absolutely.

TZ: Is there an exercise that you can share with us that is particularly important or useful for you to develop these kind of skills?

Eugene Edwards You know, I think ear training is either highly underrated or it's, well it is, it's highly underrated. I know that when I was at Berklee, ear training was the one class that everyone hated. It was the one that everyone dreaded. It was universally, everyone wanted to get out of it, everyone put it off to the last minute, no one wanted to learn to conduct, no one wanted that.

But if you think about it, it's the most fundamental thing to what we do. Especially if you're not playing purely recital music. If you're going to be creating music or someone's going to show you a song, ear training is huge.

Now, I was pretty lucky growing up as a kid, I started playing guitar when I was really young and I did not have lessons right away. So I would sit down with acoustic guitars and I would just play records and try and play along. I did that for years until I had a proper lesson, but I didn't really get lessons until I was 12 years old, but I had a guitar for the better part of five years before that.

So I didn't know chords or anything, but I knew how to pick out a melody a follow along. Sometimes I would just play what the vocal melody was and play the notes on the neck of the guitar, just play that. And then I worked on to guitar solos or licks here and there if I could find them. And, I didn't know it at the time, but I was developing my ear over time, I was constantly developing my ear.

So now, it does get to the point where if I hear something on the radio, and I like a song, I rarely hear lyrics that well for some reason, I can't remember the words to songs at all, but I immediately latch onto what key is this in, in my head I'm following the chord structure. If the melody is doing something interesting, I try and find that. Whenever I'm hearing music, I pretty much transcribe it in my head. It's just something I've done since I was a little kid. So ear training is everything to me and it's so valuable.

There have been times, honestly, Dwight will say, "Hey I want to do this song and it's something we haven't practiced." We might be going into a particular part of the country where an old song has certain resonance and I have his catalog on my iPod so I can listen to the recording, but I may not have a guitar in hand. We might not have a chance to run it through sound-check. So you're only shot to playing this song successfully in front a few thousand people is your ear training.

TZ: Yes. And transcribing from that.

Eugene Edwards You just put it in your head, and that way you know what to do when that instrument is finally in your hand. And I'll tell you, that situation comes up a lot. If you just get a pick-up gig somewhere and the guys says: "Sorry, I don't have any charts but I've got a recording, I'll put it up on Dropbox. If you can listen to it before you come down to the gig, that'd be great." Okay. There it is, that's all I got. So you're in the car, you're listening to the tune and that's ear training. Without it, where would you be?

TZ: Yeah, yeah. Now, since you were talking about when you were starting listening to all these records and only then you got some guitar lessons. I'm curious if looking back over the years that it's been developing and improving your skills, you can think of anything that you might have done or studied differently. Is there anything you would have changed in your education that would have helped you advance quicker in your skills?

Eugene Edwards You know, I was very lucky. The first guitar book I started working out of was Alfred's Basic Guitar Method, which fortunately, they still publish. The occasions when I had students, I would use that book as well. And I picked up the Nashville number system somewhere in high school, I think, and that turned out to be very valuable because that's generally what's used a lot in my world.

TZ: Yeah, that just means, the natural number system, I guess, is the natural system where the first chord is one, the second chord is two, is that correct?

Eugene Edwards Yes, you're correct. And what happens is on stage, that will be used on stage, of course. As opposed to someone who's trying to lip read. The bass player is telling you the next chord is E, but of course if you're lip reading that looks like C and D and B, I mean you can't. So if they can indicate, go to the four, obviously, it gives you the number.

It's an algebra that you have to do in your brain, but it eliminates that. Because obviously the reason that was developed was if the lead singer comes in and says, "I do such and such, but I do it in D Flat," you can transpose it quickly. You just use the number system, it eliminates the use of the alphabet. And, so I was lucky that I got that down, and then I studied elemental harmony and classical theory going into Berklee and I enjoyed that.

The one thing I think I should have looked into more was arranging, though. It's not so much any of the theories, all the theories felt fine to me. I always felt that I got what I needed. I studied some jazz composition and those studies were really, really good for me and I felt very, very satisfied there.

I have a friend of mien who graduated, actually from Berklee with a major in arranging, and to this day, I go to him all the time. If I've written a song, how would you arrange this for a rock band? I know it sounds like a strange, almost a antiseptic question about rock and roll music, but I just think, he thinks in terms of arrangements so much quicker than I do because he spent more time in it.

And so he's very very good about, "No, no, no, the drums should hold off for half a measure. They should fall in here. This guitar figure shouldn't happen until the second verse." I had a song of mine where I was really satisfied with this guitar riff that I had, and he said, "Actually, cut it in half." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "Cut the whole thing in half, like, instead of this one bar of riff, if you just cut it in half and repeat it. You don't need the second half of that." He made it better, this one thing, was like, "Oh my gosh, that is so much better that way." It's leaner, it's better.

People can do that with stuff. Usually what I do if I'm arranging something, or arranging a song, I will use templates. I'll look at some Beatles songs, they did this for two measures and by then they had this going on, and they got to the middle eight by here and they repeated the verse and then did the middle eight again and they got out of it, and I'm thinking, okay, that's good. I'll just chase that.

But, when arranging the instruments and the parts, I think that still takes me a little longer than it should. And it's probably because I didn't study arrangement.

And arrangement, whether you're learning it for horns or strings, it doesn't matter. You learn how to place things in terms of the EQ spectrum, you know. In terms of always having that fun ah-ha factor going on in your music. There's a lot of things that can be done in the arranging process and it still takes me a little long. So, that's a little bit of a regret I have, that I didn't dig into arrangement as much as I should have.

TZ: I see, I see. Now, you were saying that when you were taking all those courses in music theory they were giving you what you needed and they were enough in a sense, so my question is how did you practice your music theory? How did you take all the knowledge you got in those courses and train yourself in order to apply it naturally without thinking too much?

Eugene Edwards Well, yes, that's a good point. Usually just by playing songs. What I mean by that is, I don't give myself theory assignments. I haven't done that in years and years and years, but I will, if there's a song I like, that I've heard, I think, I'm going to learn how to play this song. Obviously the ear training comes into play there.

If I like the song so much that usually means I admire the way it was written. So, I may not necessarily transcribe it. But if I'm learning it on guitar or piano, I am paying attention to where the melody falls, or sometimes I'll start playing around with it and I'll substitute different chords, or I'll essentially re-harmonize the song after a while just to have fun with it. At the time I'm just having fun with the song, but what I'm probably doing is just exercise those theory muscles and keep it fresh.

And then, when I'm improvising solos, that's usually where I do think about theory in a very concentrated way. If I'm practicing. I really like, for a long time I played rockabilly guitar. The reason I liked it so much was that it's over a very rudimentary chord structure, but you can go outside quite a bit and then run back inside whenever you want, safely. And it's always over a swinging temp so it's fun. People like to dance to it, it's fun music, but theoretically as a guitar player, you can actually stretch out quite a bit. Over basic blues changes, really.

And so if I'm playing rockabilly or any sort of swinging music, I will then kind of think about trying something, just based on the theory. Just based on what happens if I play this mode. I come in in this mode and work my way back to the one or I'm going to start in this position on the neck and I'll give myself two measures to find myself back to the first position. On the spot, give myself an assignment and see if I can get something out of that. Those are the practical situations where I tend to flex my theory muscles.

TZ: Yeah. That's a great suggestion and very practical.

Eugene Edwards Yes, very much.

TZ: Now, assuming that like most musicians you've had some good periods and bad periods in your practice. When your skills have improved and plateaued. You don't seem to improve, you practice hours a day and nothing happens. What helped you to get through these periods?

Eugene Edwards For me, get away from the instrument for a while. For me, sometimes it's a matter of if you're not getting what you really want out of your practice, for me, usually it's a technique of some sort or again, I'll try and transcribe a solo by a player I really like and then once I'm trying to learn how to play it, it just doesn't fall together. You can't put the two runs together smoothly as the original guy did and it's driving you nuts and I know it's time to just stop.

Get away from it for a few days, this particular assignment that you're trying to get done. Walk away from it. And try and approach it again after having gone through some other musical experience. Move onto another song. Get out of that. Don't spend too much time in that rabbit hole.

TZ: Let me just clarify a moment. So, you are not suggesting to move away from the instrument in general, but just from this specific thing, right?

Eugene Edwards Right, or it could be the instrument in general. I'm saying it's a fine line. I'm not saying give up immediately, but if you can tell that you're not getting anything out of it, then move onto something else that you, because if you make progress on some other thing, now you're in a groove, you know. Maybe it's time to go back to that thing you had a hard time on. And that kind of goes for a lot of things in life, really.

It's no different than in some areas of other studies, athletics or cooking. If this is recipe just isn't coming together, go on and make something else that you know you can execute really, really well. You'll feel better about yourself. Oh yes, I do accomplish things in this field and come back to that thing that was giving you a hard time. You're coming back as a successful, creative person now and not someone who just bangs their head against the wall. This is a good life lesson, as music generally is.

TZ: Right, you try to build some momentum so you can just go through the obstacle.

Eugene Edwards That's exactly right. That's exactly right, yeah. Because you don't want to get frustrated at the music or at your instrument, or at yourself. It's not why we all picked up an instrument in the first place or we spend so much time with it. It's not so that we can frustrate ourselves. It's great to challenge yourself, though.

TZ: We play for fun. It must be fun, otherwise what's the point?

Eugene Edwards Right, yeah. So that's what I tend to do. Because my personality, I will obsess over something to the detriment of all else in my life, until I get something right. And I've realized that's probably not the most constructive way to live your life. Or to get better at your instrument.

TZ: I can totally relate to that. Totally. Okay. My last question for today are your skills, knowledge and experience of today in perfect alignment with the vision you created for yourself when you started out if you did create a vision for yourself, of course. And are you doing exactly what you imagined being a musician would be?

Eugene Edwards At the risk of sounding immodest, or whatever, yeah. This is very accurate to what I was hoping I would do when I became an adult. For me, it's even made stranger, specifically playing with Dwight. I grew up playing his music. I played these guitar parts a long time ago and now I get to do it with him. So, it's tremendously satisfying and it's very gratifying musically. I love his music and always have,

So it would be one thing to say, look I've managed to make a living playing guitar. That alone, would have been a huge life dream fulfilled right there. Then you put the icing on the cake that at this point I'm now with Dwight, which makes it even better. But, I always knew I would do something in music and I've just been lucky enough to have things line up over the years where I've always been in music.

There are times when it's frighteningly accurate to what I wanted to do or what I dreamed about doing when I was about eight or nine years old. On other days, I think, well this is all you thought about, so in some weird ways it does make sense that I would do this because it was all I really, really wanted to do. It's very gratifying and I love playing guitar, I love being around music.

I love that even if I'm not on stage playing, that there's more music to learn that I can always make myself better at my job and the things I do to get better at my job are also fun. So, I'm a really, really, fortunate guy. I'm a very, very lucky guy.

By learning the Beatles music, I was getting a big theory education there. In harmony, in unsuspecting chord changes and so when I write songs now, I realize that I'm always looking for passing tones. In a pop structure, I'm looking for passing tones, if I'm going to write a middle eight to the song, I like to figure out a really convenient key shift. Go up a fourth, go up a minor third, that's a John Lennon trick there, he would do a couple times and always has a great dramatic effect. I'd learn those tricks and those tendencies before I really knew exactly how then fell into place.

So, when I did start studying music properly, a lot of information came flooding back. A lot of dots were connected immediately. Learning just certain parts of elemental harmony, and I'd think, "Oh, so that's what they're doing on 'If I Fell'. Their vocal harmonies do this. I get it now." And, it was very, very satisfying that way. And I still get that rush now. I still get that rush with music, particularly in pop music and finding out the really interesting things. Whenever I get to the chorus of Dancing Queen by ABBA, it still just blows my mind how perfectly structured that is.

TZ: Yes, yes.

Eugene Edwards The recording is something, the recording is a great thing, but that melody and those chords, the way they come together, you couldn't change a stitch of it.

TZ: I love ABBA. Don't get me wrong, okay. I actually suggest listening to them to pretty much everybody.

Eugene Edwards Don't get me started on Brian Wilson. I mean, the great classic Beach Boys stuff, too. I've done presentations and I've transcribed a lot of that stuff and the nuts and bolts of that. It's so gratifying when it's music that you can listen to in a recreational manner as pop music. But then you can actually sit down and deconstruct this stuff and figure out, what's going on here? That's really, really satisfying to me.

So the heart of the music exists, but then the brain of it, I don't mind opening up because it'll eventually wrap me back around to why I loved it in the first place.

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