Interview With Paul Kleff of Firewolfe on Composition and Music Theory

Music Theory Interview with Paul Kleff of Firewolfe

by Tommaso Zillio

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Tommaso Zillio: Hi, this is Tommaso Zillio from I'm on the phone today with guitarist Paul Kleff from Firewolfe, bringing you another interview on Music Theory and Composition. Paul Kleff is famous worldwide with his band Firewolfe and they have just released their debut album.

Paul Kleff also has out an EP as a solo guitar player called "Machined". Paul Kleff is also, by the way, a great personal friend of mine and we have discussed some of these topics already but I thought to interview him since he has great insight into the topics we are going to talk about. I'm very happy to have Paul today and I look forward to this interview very much.

Paul, my first question is this: What role did music theory played when you were first learning to play guitar? How has this changed later in your career?

Paul Kleff: When I first started playing guitar, like most people, I was very interested in playing songs, bands that I liked, like, Led Zeppelin and Van Halen and Ozzy. I was initially just trying to get my hands to work and do what I wanted them to do, being able to play chords and play some simple leads. But I always have had in my personality where I wanted to know how things worked. As a kid I always liked to take things apart and figure out what made them work. So, very early on, I had an interest in music theory. When I would learn these songs I would want to know why certain things sounded good or why chords sounded good together.

I started playing guitar in the early 1980s, so the resources were pretty limited back then. We didn't have the internet or all of these free guitar lessons. I had taken some guitar lessons. I had friends that played, so it was kind of a haphazard way that we pieced together theory, learning the notes on the guitar, what notes went in what keys, learning scale patterns.

I had a group of friends and a lot of times we would share information with each other. That's where a lot of my knowledge came from but I've always had an interest in music theory. I wanted to know how things worked. I wanted to be able to play them but I also wanted to know why things worked or why things sounded good.

TZ: Now, we know that you and Nick [Layton] share solo duties in Firewolfe. My question is, when you improvise or write a solo, do you actively think of the scale or arpeggios on the fretboard and how they relate to the song? Or, you just, in a sense, let it go and see what comes out?

PK: I think it's a little bit of both. It's important to understand, when you improvise or go to create a solo, you need to know what you're playing over. You need to know what key you're in, I need to know what chords I'm playing over. That becomes the basis for what gets played. I think improvising is a lot like speaking. When you build your verbal vocabulary you're able to select the right word or the word that you want to use in conversation without having to stop and think about it. That's really what we're trying to do when we create a solo, we're trying to express a feeling or express a thought musically.

Knowing that theory, what chords or what arpeggios tie in with the key that you're playing in, how those work, is very important. And also, I think sometimes you throw that out the window a little bit and sometimes you just play. Sometimes, you just try things to hear how they sound and sometimes they may not make a lot of sense from a musical perspective. Especially, if you're playing something that's maybe a bit more pentatonic or blues-based or you may play some faster type runs that are more chromatic-based, that from a theory perspective they may not always make sense but they still work.

Some of my favorite guitar players do that. George Lynch is somebody who I think of that does that a lot of times. He'll play maybe patterns on the guitar as opposed to things that make sense from a theoretical perspective, patterns may that fit well underneath your hands. For me, knowing where I want to go and what fits from a theory perspective is always a starting point. It may not be the ending point but it's always a starting point.

TZ: Now, what is your approach to composition? How do you go from an inspiration, a generic abstract inspiration to the actual notes and chords in your song?

PK: Most of the time it will start with some type of inspiration, whether it's the guitar in my hands, practicing, playing something or sometimes I will hear something in my head. Or, I will be listening to some music and hear a chord change or a melody that will end up being a seed for an idea. I wouldn't necessarily copy that, but it ends up being an idea. And then I think "How can I develop that?"

I think, initially, for me as a writer, when I first started trying to compose I was very much into thinking about what chords, what melody, and ignored some of the other elements of music theory in particular rhythm. And now, lately, I compose more from a rhythmic aspect, where I'll think about different types of things; what can I do with rhythm as opposed to just thinking about different chord progressions or melodies.

There's all those other elements of music theory that I think, when I initially started playing guitar and composing, I was very much about the harmony and the melody but thinking about those other elements, rhythm and timbre and dynamics and all of those other things in there, which are really just as important to me as a compositional element. Rather than starting with the melody or the harmony, you can also start with a rhythm or a timbre and work your way the other way. It really helps the creative process and it helps me because I'm not so single-minded.

That and at least beginning or getting seeds for my composition using my voice, listening to something or maybe even playing some notes or chords on the piano as opposed to just trying to compose by playing riffs. That's what most of us tend to do as guitar players and I still do that but I've tried to come at things from a different direction, thinking about those other compositional elements or thinking about the melody or the harmony coming from somewhere other than natural patterns that may fall under the hands on the guitar.

TZ: OK. I have another one here: How important is ear training for you? Is there any exercise or tip that was particularly important or useful for you when you were starting up?

PK: Yes, I think it's very, very important. Most of my ear training came from when I started playing guitar. We didn't have the tablature available that we have today. If you wanted to learn something you kind of had to figure it out. You had to figure out the chord changes or try to learn the lead as best that you can. That was really where my ear training came from. I did go to music school, got a degree in music and studied formally, and went through that type of ear training there but learning how to play songs was very important for me in learning by ear. There was a lot of trial and error there but what happened was I ended up building a vocabulary where I could hear a chord progression from a song, and if I heard it in another song I could relate it and know that it was the same chord progression. For me, not working with tablature I think is very important.

I used to play along to the radio, I would turn the radio on and I actually have some of my students do that now with Pandora. Pick an artist that you like on a website like Pandora and then just tell them to sit down for 20 minutes or a half hour and just try to play along with songs that they like by the artist. Not to figure them out completely note for note but to find some of the chords, some of the notes some of the melodies, so that you're trying to match what you're doing with the guitar with what you're hearing.

Much of my ear training came from that, also with that, not having tablature, I, most of the time was not concerned with figuring things out exact. I could get things close. Sometimes I might not be able to figure out what was going on exactly in a lead but I could get it close. Then when I learned theory, I could kind of figure out what the guitar player was doing, then, I would come up with something that was my own but sounded like the style of the guitar player I was trying to imitate whether it was George Lynch or Randy Rhoads or Edward Van Halen.

That was the most helpful thing for me, trying to learn songs by ear as opposed to sitting down and working with intervals or trying to do that type of formal training. Those types of tools just were not really available when I first started out. I did much with just trying to play songs and it helped build my vocabulary.

TZ: Now, I know that also you're not just an artist but you're also a teacher. I was thinking of asking you, what would you say to someone who aspires to play like you but is intimidated by the level of theory he has to master?

PK: Start small. I think I learned much of my theory in a very haphazard way, over a period of time. I think now, at least when I teach, and even with some of the resources that are available websites like yours and other instructors, it's so much more concise now and easy to access for a player. I think you can learn much more over a shorter period of time. I think the single biggest thing is learning to apply what we learn.

If you learn how to identify, say, the chords in G major and why they're there, now try to compose a song using those chords. I think it's important to have a working knowledge as opposed to just an understanding. We may read something and go "I understand how that works" but until you're able to use it, I don't think it means as much. So, when I have my students learn something new, we immediately go to learning how to apply it because that's where I believe the true knowledge comes from.

So any time students want to learn theory we learn how to apply and use what they're learning as opposed to just reading about it and thinking "Oh well, I understand that". I remember being in algebra class in high school and thinking I understood what was going on but then I would get home and try to do my homework and it was much different when I tried to work through the problems on my own. I didn't always understand or know what I thought I understood. Application I think is key.

TZ: So, you're just comparing music theory to algebra. You're making my life easy here. [laughs]

PK: Well, I know what your background is, you're a lot smarter than I am.

TZ: [laughs] Well, I'm thinking of the people listening to this and saying: "Oh my god, I never got algebra, I'm never going to get music theory."

PK: No, no, no not algebra, [this is] much easier. Makes much more sense and it's a lot more fun.

TZ: Oh yes, I do agree. Since we're on the topic of students and learning, I'm assuming that like most musicians you have your good periods and bad periods in your practice, such as when your skill plateaus and you do not seem to improve very much, no matter what you do. What helps you to get through this period?

PK: What helps to get through this period? Well, I get upset and then I get over it. No, it depends on what I'm working on. I will go through phases. At the level that I'm at now, it just depends on what I have going. I know that if I need to record, in a short period of time from now much of my practice is oriented towards my chops and making sure that my execution is there. I haven't been working that much on chops right now, so I know that my technique is not where I would like to have it. But I have been writing a lot of songs, we're composing now with the band so I'm more in the creative side of things.

I think I don't get as alarmed as I used to. I used to feel like I had to be constantly improving and I had to be able to see and measure that improvement every day or I would not feel good about my playing. Now I know that that's not the case. I may not feel good about my playing but I know that I continue to improve and change and evolve. And that's tough I know for guitar players that are just starting out.

I know initially, when we start playing through those first couple months, everything is brand new and you're constantly feeling like you're getting better and you're just absorbing all of this, then you hit that plateau where you just have to keep working and continue to go through it.

I encourage my students to video tape or video record themselves and not watch it. Just put a date on it and then you go back in a few months and you watch those old videos and you can really see your improvement. It's just like growing, when we're younger we may not be able to perceive ourselves getting taller but when you look back from 6 months "Oh, I grew 2 inches," so you're continuing to improve and evolve as long as you go through your daily process and you're organized on what you need to be practicing.

Just stay true to the path and enjoy the process of what you're doing and you will continue to improve and evolve. Even if you don't feel like you're getting better every day, don't let that stop you or slow you down.

TZ: That's a good analogy there, getting taller, that's a very good analogy. I totally agree with that.

PK: Yes.

TZ: OK. Do you think reading music should be on the priority skills for a modern guitar player or not?

PK: It depends on what they want to play. If they want to be a classical musician or maybe leaning more towards jazz, it could be important. I don't use it much. I learned to formally read in school and I don't use it much. I think it's important to have an understanding of theory and how things actually work on the fretboard. That's probably more important than an actually reading formal notation in my opinion. I think it can help you understand how things work with the circle of fifths and seeing how that's represented on the staff as you move through the keys.

As far as actually using it, if you're going to be a rock guitar player or blues guitar player, you have to understand the components of it, it's important to understand things like rhythm, the difference between an eighth note and a quarter note or half note. Once you have that understanding, you can represent that using standard notation. I don't feel, unless you're leaning towards a particular style, that it's necessary to learn to read music immediately. And in some ways it makes things more complicated for the guitar player because, unlike the piano where, say you have that middle C note, there's only one place to play it on the piano. On the guitar you have multiple ways to play the same note and it can be somewhat confusing.

TZ: Definitely, definitely. Have you ever met musicians that over think the music theory or go into 'analysis paralysis' or has it ever happened to yourself and if so, what would you suggest for that person to do?

PK: Yes, and I used to. When I was learning new things I always wanted to make sure that I could figure out what category or what musical box to put it in. I think as my ear got better that helped me get out of that 'analysis paralysis' because music is really about the sounds we create. It's the sounds in the air, it's not so much about what theoretical category or "Is this song adhering directly to this mode the entire time?" or "Does this chord fit in this key, if not what do I label it as?"

I think as your ear improves you're able to use that theory for what it is, you know? Kind of like baking a cake, if you think of music theory as the recipe for the cake on the box. Initially you want to follow the recipe exactly as it is on the box but as you get used to baking cakes you can modify that recipe to make it come out just like you want. I think that's a good way for me, and I encourage my students to look at music theory that way. That it's a starting point but it's not the ending point and when we try to fit everything into the musical perspective, we're using theory as the ending point.

Develop your ear and try to figure out how things work from a theory perspective but don't think of the theory as the ending point, it's just the starting point.

TZ: One final question. Are your skills, knowledge and experience of today in perfect alignment with the vision you created of yourself when you started out? Are you doing exactly what you imagined?

PK: Yes, I think so at this point. That's changed over time. When I was getting serious about the guitar, during that time period in the 1980s, there were guitar players like Jason Becker and Yngwie Malmsteen and Marty Friedman and a lot of those guys on Shrapnel Records, the shred guys. That was very big at that time and I worked hard. I thought that's who I wanted to be and what I needed to be. Over time I've kind of become more oriented towards songs, playing in a band with a singer, those types of compositions.

Playing guitar is very important to me, and having the good technique to be able to express what I want to express, and basically, to be able to shred a little bit, that's still important to me but not important the way it was when I first started out playing. I'm more into creating music now and that's changed over time. I think it changes for most of us. Maybe what we think we want to be may end up being somewhat different, it changes over time.

I think the important thing is to be true to yourself. I'm still as much of a music fan today as I was when I was 15 years old. I listen to music and I get excited, just like I did as a kid or a teenager and I think as a musician it's important for us to hold on to that and to go back to that. And there are new things I listen to now that I find musically exciting that I would not have found exciting back then. Being a music fan is important to me and that's what helps keep me going. So, it has changed over time, but I'm very happy with what I'm doing right now. I feel blessed to be a musician and a teacher. I feel like I'm doing exactly what I'm supposed to be doing.

TZ: Good, this pretty much wraps up my questions for today.

PK: Okay.

TZ: Thank you very much Paul for sharing your insight on composition, music theory and ear training. It's pretty rare that I get a player of your caliber who takes the time to share some of his secrets and strategy for becoming a good musician with the general public.

I hope that everybody who listened to this interview really appreciates and applies the concepts that you talked about today so they can benefit from them the same way that you did. Thanks again, Paul, all the best for your future musical projects.

PK: Thank you, Tommaso.

TZ: Thank you.

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