Interview on Composition with Dave Martone

by Tommaso Zillio

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Tommaso Zillio: Hi, Tommaso Zillio from MusicTheoryForGuitar.com. I am right now on the phone with guitar player Dave Martone. Dave do not really need an introduction. I mean, he's probably the most famous Canadian guitar player. But at the very least is a top selling one according to Guitar9.com. So yeah, Dave, has an endless list of accomplishments in his career, is a number of album sales. These last two album When the Aliens Come and Clean, collaboration with Joe Satriani and another incredible number of guitar players. I can't even start with a list of all the thing you have done, Dave, actually. So I'm very happy to have you here today with us.

Dave Martone: I'm thankful you're giving me a call, Tommaso. I'm looking forward to the interview.

TZ: Thank you, Dave. Thank you. So I have some questions for you. I say let's get started. My first question is what role music theory played in, when you were first learning to play guitar. And how does this changed later in your career?

DM: The initial idea was I really didn't have any music theory background. I did learn from a book called Barbara something, I can't remember the book. It was an old, old book and it was self-school, teaching me how to write notes, tell key signatures, write and spell chords out. But it was no formal training. My lessons, in the very beginning, were all just how to play guitar. The most influential part of where I learned, I would say, would be in my pop's basement. In my familia, in the basement. I would have all these pieces of music and I would just listen to things and try and figure things out from here.

My actual formal theoretical education didn't start to come until I was around 17 years old when I went to a music college and a couple music colleges after that is when I could play the guitar quite well but I didn't know what things were called and what they were called, but I could play. So in the colleges, they taught me what they're called, they taught me how they're used, and they taught me many more things as well in the future of sounds I could hear people doing but I didn't understand what they were. And once they clarified them, I'm like oh that's what that is. That's great. So I was able to use those devices in some of my music once being able to figure it out.

TZ: Yeah, when you approach the fret board, how is important for you to know what are the notes, the scales, the arpeggios, and how would you suggest a beginner to start learning how to orient themselves on the fret board?

DM: Well, it's very easy, Tommaso. I have this great way of telling people how to learn the fret board and I can have them know the whole fret board within three minutes. Three minutes and people go there's no way. You do need to have one piece of information down. You need to know all the names of the notes on the thick string, or the low E for that to happen. If you can know that, it's very easy for me to kind of explain how it's all built off of that and like I said, within three minutes you'll be able to know everything. And it's all built off of an octave type of an idea. So that's how I can get people to learn it really quickly.

And I find it's very important. It helps. It's basically like navigation. So, like, when they're playing the guitar they go by feel or the light switch is out. Picture yourself in a black room. No lights and you're trying to play. It's a lot of fun. But if you were able to see where you're going and able to know where things are at, you'd be able to be much more effective. You would sound smoother. Everything would be a lot easier. So I think it's a great way to be able to know how it's put together.

TZ: Okay, good. When you compose your own songs, do you compose straight on the guitar or use added instrument or you compose everything in your mind and transcribe it?

DM: It would be nice if I could compose it in my mind and transcribe it like Mozart or all those people, but I'm not of that level. So a lot of the times I will, most of the ideas will come from either two things. In no particular order, the first will come from a sound. So it could be an effect that I bought or a new pedal or a new patch on an amplifier. Something of that. So the sound, that is very inspirational to me. That will make me write something. Number two, it's from jamming with a drum machine and bass where I'll just improvising and practicing ideas. An idea will just pop out and present itself to me.

Those two situations, that's the inception. That's the nucleus. That's the little bug. That's the seed. Those two ways, for me. The third way, and sometimes not so popular is actually hearing a melody in my head or that sonic sound, which I'll then grab my guitar and try and find it and go from there. But always on the guitar, I hadn't really composed on keyboard or any other instrument. It's always been guitar for me.

TZ: That's great. That's great. Yeah, there are many approaches here so wanted to know which one you were using. I guess a problem many of our readers report is that when they learn music theory, they start to feel constricted by music theories. So I wanted to ask you how do you use music theory in your compositions in a way that liberates your creativity as opposed to restricting it?

DM: When people learn music theory, they of course, in an educational way, they teach you and you have to have guidelines, Tommaso. So in guidelines it's easier for them to be able to show you how things work. And that's an easy way to grasp things. Picture like a sandbox with the four boards around it. Then they'll explain to you how everything gets put together in there. However, there is a whole world outside of the sandbox, around the pieces of wood. So what I like to do is I like to explore mostly outside of the sandbox. Meaning I like to explore outside and where it's normal.

So when I'm composing something, I won't think of let's say something called diatonic harmony with the way that chords are put together in a certain key and how and what those chords are. I'll think of sometimes on the guitar, if I'm playing a certain chord progression, I won't worry about that. I'll worry about sometimes movement on the neck. Meaning I like this chord, I'm going to move it diagonally to another string and I'm going to kind of zigzag throughout the neck on the guitar. Totally, totally not even thinking anything about harmonic ideas. More, almost if you will, a pattern based of moving chords around. I really enjoyed the certain sounds of darker sounding chords as well, chords like a minor/major seven.

A perfect example is if you listen to a song called a Demon's Dream off of, what the heck's the album called? Yeah. It's even you know when you listen to see the song called Stars Scars off of When The Aliens Come. Those are two exact examples of composition that's outside the box in which I am keeping it fresh. I'm not in the traditional role of how harmony's put together. That comes from just exploring around the neck, seeing more pattern based ideas instead of relying on traditional harmony.

TZ: I see, I see. That's good. That's great. So before, you were mentioning that sometimes the nucleus of a song was coming from in effect, you bought. I'm thinking if this may happen, sometimes it could happen to you the same of like, you were studying music theory or just whatever and you had a chord or scale that really inspired you. And maybe some song were coming out of this.

DM: I missed the first part of the question. I'm sorry because-

TZ: Oh, yes. Sorry, I repeat it, I repeat it. Before you were mentioning that sometimes the nucleus of a song was coming from you just bought an effect and you like the sound of it so you were starting and creating the song from the effect. And I was wondering if maybe it every happened to you, the same but starting from a chord or a scale or a theory concept, and thinking mostly in your early years when you were still learning?

DM: Yeah, let me think back to that point. Yes, there was a few chords that really inspired me how to play. See, if I have a guitar in my hand right now, I saw this chord in the guitar magazine, it sounds like this [plays]. And that chord was an Am11. And I put that chord in almost every song after I wrote . There's another song, chord, called Em11 that sounds like this [plays]. So that one as well, too. Just from one chord would inspire me to write a whole song. That's correct. Or the standard major seven inversion chords, like a D-major inversion right there [plays]. You put a B in the bass and it sounds awesome. But when you put a D in the bass, it sounds normal. So yes, to answer your question, most definitely songs are written from just one chord that I would have figured out. Maybe I saw it in a guitar magazine. Maybe I would have researched it from one of my favorite mentors or something like that, and I would have figured it out. And the sound of it would have opened the door to create something.

TZ: That's great. That's great. Since you mention your mentors, I wanted to ask you if what other artists you admire just for their composition and skill, and what artist just for their playing or mainly for their playing skills? And if they are the same or not?

DM: Yeah, I think actually that's, they're very different sometimes. And for one artist to have both, I think is a great, great skill set. Because sometimes there's great players out there that can't write great songs. And sometimes there are players out there that maybe can't play that great that write great songs. However, you can have the combination of both, I think that's a very strong, strong asset to be able to have. So there would be like, in the beginning I remember listening to a guitar player named Tony MacAlpine and I thought he had great songs and he had great compositional skills and he had great technique. I really enjoyed what he brought forth to the table. That was a long, long time ago. He's one that kind of really inspired me to do that.

Then in the beginning, there was Van Halen because that was more vocal based. But I've enjoyed his compositions because there's a lot of stuff going on in the guitar parts while the vocals are going on, too. Which is a neat way to be able to play back and forth over the vocals. So I think the best you can do is if you create a great song and I think that's the most important thing. Because imagine yourself as a listener. Would you want to hear someone playing amazing guitar, but the song is horrible? Or would you rather them hearing an amazing song in which the playing is great? I'd prefer more the latter.

TZ: I see what you mean. I see what you mean. Yeah, Dave, I'm assuming that like most musicians and especially you other players, you had your good periods and bad periods in your practice. Such as you know when your skills plateau and don't seem to improve no matter what you do and you try to practice more and it doesn't go anywhere, so what helped you to get through these periods?

DM: That is a great question. And a very difficult one to answer as well, too. I've never been asked that question before.

TZ: Really? I'm surprised.

DM: Well, we always think as a player that there's always so much to learn. And I think when you feel that there's nothing more to learn, that's when you become stagnated. A lot of times there is plateaus that are reached and that's okay because there's so many different types of techniques on the guitar, you can move onto another territory on the guitar. As an example, say you're working on tapping and you feel you've become stagnated or boring or everything's become plateaued there, you can rest for that for awhile and maybe work on chords. You really enjoy chords and the inversions and pulling them apart, as an example. And that in itself will help the stagnation and open up a fresh store because it's like reaching the wall. And then once you hit the wall, you can't go forward. But you could always go to the left and go to the right and find another passageway through the wall via, say, another technique on the guitar, harmony, that type of an idea.

So that's what I'll do sometimes to, if I get, if I hit a plateau. Or I like buying books, guitar books that were totally off kilter. So for instance, right now I'm checking out a book called Bebop Licks on my guitar. So I have that book and if I feel bored or not inspired, I'll just open up the book and I'll go through and there's a whole bunch of great ideas in there that will be able to do that. The problem, Tommaso, is the time. The time to do that and unfortunately nowadays there's just no time to, for me to do that. And I, and it's a sad thing because I could be so much better if I actually had the time to continue on like, in our youth there's always more time. So now that I'm older, there's no time to continue all of that research and knowledge because life comes in the way. And I have to prepare for concerts. I have to prepare for recordings. It's just endless. It's endless, it's endless so it's very, very difficult for me right now to try and keep all of that learning process going and keep it all together. Great question.

TZ: Good, good. And you know because this is something that I've heard from many people that they did have little time and they want to study practice more but they have to prepare for concerts, for recording, for studio gigs, for other things. I think it relates a lot with the normal guitar player out there that is doing it for a hobby because they don't have much time, too. So it seems we are all in the same boat at the end of the day about this.

DM: I think so. And at the end of the day, I want to play what's going to make me happy and want to play. A lot of times what that is new ideas, too, so just being able to have window, an opportunity. I find I have the most time when I go out and tour. Usually because I'm away from my house, I'm away from everybody and then I have more down time to be able to do that. So that's why I like to go out and tour more because then I can learn more.

TZ: Listen, before you were saying that sometimes to create a song, you improvise with a drum machine. So I'm thinking about asking you that. When you compose your song, I'll just structure the guitar parts in relation to the other instrument. So how do you make the guitar interact with the drums and the bass?

DM: In the very beginning on my very first album, first full length album, which was called Shut Up and Listen in 1995, I had written all the guitar parts and I had told all the drums and bass exactly what I wanted to do. And in my naivety and being so young, I really didn't know what the hell I was talking about. I had an idea of what I wanted it to sound like in my head, but I didn't play the drums. So I would have these ideas and sometimes they weren't realistically playable on the drums or the bass because of my lack of knowledge.

After that, I ran into some different players and my composition idea changed in which I would work on a song, I would put in like, for instance, a simple drum loop. And if it was an odd time, very crudely I would just chop the loop into four or five or six beats or whatever I needed and just Frankenstein the demo together. So it'd be very rough. You would hear the guitar parts, and if there was a certain guitar part that needed to be hit or pushes in the sound, I would just double or have like a little bass or kick drum sound and just show the idea, the rough idea. I would put a scratch bassline down, just kind of give them the vibe. So then, I would give it to the players in the band, David Spidel and Daniel Adair, and I would let them work with it and come up with their ideas. Usually 80%, 90% of the time, let them have whatever they came up with because I wanted it to be fun for them as well, too, and not for me to dictate everything that they're going to do.

I found that that worked a lot better for me. So what I found out happening is after the drums would be finished, sometimes I would hear really cool ideas which then I would even change my part that was already written to match maybe more of the drums because there was something that inspired me that I heard there. From that fact, the last part we would put the bass on to match, to tighten everything up. So to answer your question, I don't tell them what to play. I'll give them, I'll point them in a direction that I'm feeling and I'll let them create their whole part by themselves.

TZ: That's great. That's great. That's a great tip actually. A very great tip. Okay. Last thing I wanted to ask is: are your skills, knowledge and experience of today aligned with the vision you created for yourself when you started out, if you had a vision of course? And are you doing right now exactly what you imagined you would be doing in this career or did life surprised you into doing something completely different?

DM: Life has a great way of surprising. I am enjoying where I'm at right now. I am. And I am enjoying the journey and I feel very blessed to be able to go and travel and that people, someone know my music even though I still feel like I'm a very small fry in the big box of French fries in life. You know? So we always, or I will speak for myself, I always want to be doing better. I always want to be doing more. I try as much as I can with the time that I have to get myself involved with as many things that I can help sustain my career and at this point, could generate income. I didn't plan on that in the beginning. I didn't think I'm going to play guitar to become financially secure because if I did, I would be retarded. I would have picked a different job. For me, there's no way I picked it to become rich. It was something I loved doing. It's something that I really enjoyed, that gave me great enjoyment from playing.

So at one point, somehow I started to make money from it and then it just became somehow a transition into oh, this is now how I'm supporting myself. So I think there was no huge, like, surprises. There's been a lot of great things that have happened and sometimes I miss certain opportunities. I think everything is timing. I would have, and still would like to be on some huge world tours playing in some massive, massive bands playing in front of 30-100,000 people. I haven't done that yet. I want to do that. I really want to do that. So, there's things that I still want to get done, of course. But I'm happy with what's going on but I'm always striving to learn the next thing, open up the next door, see the next opportunity.

TZ: That's great. Well, we'll put the word out there, hey, Dave Martone is searching for a big band. And this wraps up all my questions for today so thank you, Dave, for sharing your insight on all that. It's quite uncommon that a guitar player of your kind of caliber takes the time to share some of his secrets and strategies with other musicians> and the general public. So I really, really appreciate you granting me this interview.

DM: Ah, grazie. No problem. It was totally fine. I enjoyed sharing some information because I think if there's anything I can do to help or point someone in a direction if they're stopped, knowledge is great to pass along. I think if it helps anybody, that's totally, totally awesome.

TZ: That is great, Dave. Thank you. Thank you very much.

DM: You're welcome.

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