[FEATURE] A stringy morning with Az

On August 1st, an acoustic guitar masterclass was held in the Recital Hall by Az Samad, who is a guitarist, composer and educator with plenty of experience under his belt. He plays and experiments in a variety of styles, including acoustic and recently experimental electric guitar effects in his latest album. He was a chamber classical guitarist for about two years, but had also played in big band settings, in which he joked about not having to play bar chords.

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Picture courtesy of writer

He started his masterclass with a solo guitar piece that he had composed himself entitled “The C-Factor”, which had Celtic influences in it. In this song, he used an alternate tuning of DADGAD. Although this tuning was made popular by Pierre Bensusan, he had been introduced to it by Eric Roche, who often used alternate tunings in his playing, in one of his masterclasses in the UK. He also does a lot of different percussive effects on the guitar, such as striking the body like a drum.

Picture courtesy of writer
Picture courtesy of writer

The next song he played was Blue Monk, which was a jazz written by Thelonious Monk. Despite playing it solo, Az Samad took on all the parts that would normally be divided in a band: the walking bass, comping and melody itself. He also emulated a bass taking on a solo in the midst of the piece, even effectively imitating the timbre of an acoustic bass with clever muting. In both songs, his body language showed that he was truly enjoying the playing.

Later, Melissa Wong took to the stage with Pat Metheny’s “Song For The Boys”, tuned to a C# tuning which had more highs than lows to create a different tone. The reverb effect that she used gave this song a very relaxed mood. In this repertoire, Az pointed out how the use of different picks would bring out a different tone; for example a lighter pick would be easier to strum, but string noise would be more apparent, while a heavier pick would give a stronger definition in rhythm, but would create more resistance. A common problem that many guitarists have is that while they may have many picks, most of them only use the same one. As Melissa had performed while sitting down, he advised her to figure a position where the guitar could be held and placed so that the hand can move anywhere on the fret as he noted that when changing postures, the accuracy of the playing could be affected. One way to overcome this problem was to practice with both sitting and standing postures; even interchanging postures while practicing.

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In the case of the accidental playing of wrong chords, Az said that the player should never reveal that they did, as they might tense up, causing their hands to do the same. This affects the tone of their playing, as tension will result in more harsh sounds. He also points out that every instrument has its own interior dynamic range, and the musicians should always try to figure out how loud or soft you can go to optimize the full range.

The next performance was by Chee Seng and his band, who performed “El Comienzo” by the Gabriel Vicéns Quintet. This song was self transcribed, and despite the minimal practice the band (which was used to practice the groove and transitions), the song had the audience’s attention from start to end. Az did mention not to put the guitar pick into the mouth, as the guitarist could even end up swallowing it by accident. Before starting a song, musicians should hear the groove in their head, especially if they were the first to start. This is to create an epic kind of vibe that the band should be aiming for, as opposed to a boring one. In addition to that, the musicians should never look bored when performance, and it takes away the overall performance.

Picture courtesy of writer
Picture courtesy of writer

The final performance was of John Butler’s “Ocean”, played solo by Yuet Kim. The song was chosen because it was a song that she couldn’t play in foundation, but had wanted to. The varied techniques required in this song was rather complex. She played this song with the capo, which Az Samad said to be careful of as it sometimes causes the intonation to go out. This can happen if the guitar is tuned different, and is not accustomed to it. He also said the legato section could break if it is not smooth enough.

Overall, as someone who is not familiar with the guitar, I found this masterclass both informative and entertaining, thanks to seeing different techniques that I never knew could be done with the acoustic guitar, as well as Az Samad’s lighthearted humor while conducting the masterclass. I’ve learnt how different picks affect the tone, the upsides and downsides of alternate tunings, as well as general performance behaviour among other things. I will be looking forward to any workshop and masterclass that he may have in the future.

This article was written by Chan Yuen Kaye, 3rd  year student of the B. of Contemporary Music program.

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