Georgetown, Washington DC, is a one of kind place where politics abound and history fills each corner. It’s a place where the rich and powerful come to spend a Sunday afternoon and you never know who you’ll meet. On this particular blustery weekend, It was my pleasure to rub elbows, sit, and talk it up with none other than guitarist / composer Ney Mello. Like many others, I’ve been a long time fan of Neys. Top selling collaborations, in demand educator, and now topping the DVD charts are but a few of his achievements. Not only a great guy, his chops are so good it has earned him the praise of his peers; often being compared to John McLaughlin. Here in Georgetown, as we sit across from one of his old haunts, the world famous Blues Alley, we had the chance to discuss his playing techniques, projects, and evolution from influential and observant performer into a master teacher, premier technical advisor, and artistic mentor to musicians around the globe.
Glenn Martin: Besides your own highly regarded stature worldwide as an artist; you are considered by many world class musicians as one of the most complete authority figures in right hand picking education analysis and development. How did you come to reach this point in your career?
Ney Mello: Well, Thank you for your kindness Glenn!….I started from a musically very fortunate position in terms of natural talent for music, piano, drums, voice and classical finger-style guitar. However the pick is what I loved the most and it was also the one that I was absolutely not natural with from the beginning. My left hand, thank goodness!, was much more developed and easily trainable. I had to strengthen it considerably and work on stretching, but the pick was initially very foreign to me, both in feel and in technique. So I had to truly research what to do since there were no sources at all at the time regarding pick playing at high levels. In fact I was happy if I could one day play at any level, so I had to work very hard to find out.
Glenn Martin: How did you research it?
Ney Mello: I went to libraries at universities and read books on violin technique and piano technique. Remember. There was nothing in print about the pick at that time, so I went where there was already a solid tradition of virtuoso technique teachings, to learn anything that could possibly translate to pick playing, not to become a virtuoso, which I thought was entirely beyond my potential, but to enable me to play the music I wanted. I also went to the US cultural center in Brasilia and read down beat for the interviews which were not very technical, but useful in other ways to me as an artist. I also used to get the melody Maker newspaper from London and I found out at the time via a column were Richie Blackmore answered why up and down picking was more effective for speed. We did not even have names like alternate picking. In fact when I invented for my own use what became later described (when the internet was born) as economy picking, I only did so in 1973 because it was the most logically efficient path for the pic in terms of basic laws of physics, in my mind at least. I was quite surprised when decades later I saw the great Jimmy Bruno describing the same technique he had also developed and for the exact same reasons!. The great sweep picking innovator Frank Gambale also considers this as sweep picking which he also developed as his way of picking with a more strictly sweep focus which was sheer genius in it’s vision. It is for me quite amazing that all three of us developed the same technique in the same era, but in 3 different continents: Australia, South America and North America. All in complete isolation from each other!. The human spirit is fantastic when it is involved in something with great love…It will reveal universals, if we only look within…and I consider both of them to be absolute geniuses and their work is a treasure to humanity.
Glenn Martin: How did you get started in music and the guitar?
Ney Mello: Well, practically since birth, I would say. I used to sing a lot when I was little and later I played some piano, all by ear, very playfully and sporadically with no systematic study until I picked up the guitar later when I was 18. At the time I was drawing a lot and even won an award for a book cover design and sold some drawings to collectors. I liked the sound of the bass guitar a lot when I was a child and later in fact my first national tour in Brazil was as a bassist…I Then attended the EMB school of Music in Brazil and got a performance and composition certificate diploma. I also studied jazz arranging very briefly through Berklee. I also have a masters degree from CUA. The atmosphere at Berklee in the 70s was very artistic and vital and I understand that it is today as some of my guitar students have graduated from Berklee quite happily. That was an era when everyone I ran into while visiting and auditing classes was doing music for the right reasons… For the art of it ..for the Love of music. No matter what genre. I understand it is still like that.
Glenn Martin: Why did you chose the guitar as your main instrument?
Ney Mello: Because of what one can express with it. It is ultimately a question of loving the sound and feel of it more than any other instrument.
Glenn Martin: Do you play any other instruments?
Ney Mello: Yes…Bass guitar of course, Drums, bongos, and piano,,what I call arrangers piano Good for recording and some right hand soloing…not much beyond that. Drums I play more for the Brazilian bossa nova styles which are very hard to find players who can do that with the right feel outside Brazil. The ones that can are always touring…Bongos pretty much all basic styles.
Glenn Martin: Do you play finger-style as well?
Ney Mello: Yes. I always did both Jazz etc. with a pick and fingers …and strict classical. I studied classical guitar with Eustaquio Grilo in Brasilia, who was a very open minded master musician, not at all dogmatic. I stopped playing classical repertoire to focus exclusively on improvisation after I was invited to represent Brazil at the Ibero-American chamber Music Festival in Washington DC. I Played Villa Lobos, Gismonti and one of my own compositions. I realized that improvisation and composition which were at the core of my musical life…since the beginning were fundamental and I wanted to do only that. I still listen to a lot of classical music, specially impressionist and I have analyzed about half of Beethoven’s string quartet’s for arranging. They are amazing. I recommend the Alexander Quartet’s recording of those works.
Glenn Martin: Do you transcribe a lot?
Ney Mello: Yes, but I do it by directly playing it. Sometimes I write it down. I have developed my mind and concentration over the decades to the point that I can playback passages in my mind and analyze what is going on while I am chopping tomatoes and garlic in the kitchen for example [ laughs ]. Mostly I listen very attentively and get the vibe and feel and most importantly the aura and meaning, if you will of what is being said musically. Phrasing and dynamics…interaction…Then I personalize it and add it to my vocabulary. Another aspect is rhythm and accents, which in my experience are very neglected by many players…They define entire styles you know…I also studied piano players phrasing and harmonic conception and saxophone and trumpet players solos…organ. Many instruments. I prefer not to be a guitar-centric type. For me it it prevents discovery and finding amazing things that are in essence musical and apply to almost any instrument. I experience the musical creation process as putting music first and instrument second. This is where, for me at least, the pure music has a chance to be heard. And then you can apply it to the guitar as instrument. It is how I liberate myself from the guitar mannerisms I tend to fall into out of blind habit.
Glenn Martin: Any special influences in the beginning of your career?
Ney Mello: In my home there was jazz, British pop, Stevie Wonder, Sinatra, French music and classical as well as Disney music records. I loved it all. Then I heard Flamenco, Sabicas…the great, Django Reinhardt blew me away, and still does!, The monumental John Mc Laughlin made me realize how much more could be expressed with a guitar than I had imagined; The incredible iconic legend Al Di Meola was also a tremendous influence and a caring informal mentor figure to me. Pat Martino’s genius and Allan Holdsworth’s superhuman mind and feel…Actually I used to listen to Coltrane’s Ascencion and Sun Ra. lot’s of free jazz and European and US Avant Garde music, Nevertheless, in the beginning, Holdsworth was the only artist that I could not comprehend or listen fast enough to grasp what he was doing at the time. And Johnny Smith, Jimmy Raney, Joe Pass, Rene Thomas….On the rock side Jimi of course [ GM: Jimi Hendrix] Eric Clapton, Eric Johnson, Gary Moore, Ollie Halsall, also Mike Stern, Grant Green… I also enjoy listening to Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani…Paco de Lucia and Vicente Amigo, the brazilian grand-master Baden Powell. I was also fortunate to meet Shawn Lane a few times before he passed on and I also like Jimmy Rosenberg. Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Keith Jarret, Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane…Stockhausen…I studied Indian music with Broto Roy. I had to, to able to play with him [laughs]
Glenn Martin: Why did you decide to create the educational DVD “Maximum Speed Picking with Ney Mello”?
Ney Mello: It was entirely by popular demand and it is the first of it’s kind wit about 3 hours of detailed content focusing exclusively on the right hand. Around 2002, People started to get unprecedented results in their picking abilities from reading my articles and Q&A on the web, so, Jamie Andreas, who is the founder of The Guitar Principles method, http://www.guitarprinciples.com, suggested that I produce a DVD, since one can only get so much by reading about it. The complete nature of the motions is not possible to convey in print. It is a 3D reality..I believe in not wasting any type of precious accumulated knowledge resources that are very hard to come by for musicians, if I can help it. And I had accumulated over the years so much effective and transmittable knowledge that I wanted to better the conditions for guitar players worldwide, since there was nothing of the sort available specifically for pick. I was blessed with the ability to be an extremely accurate translator between the wordless world of the player which I inhabit and the intellect of an aspiring player or even an experienced player, which can only grasp this kind of detailed information via words. The task was to put into coherent linear thinking step-by-step methodology what is by nature non-verbal and a matter of physical feel and physical intelligence. The methods were effective for me, but I also had to test them, over the years, on my students, to see if they were effective for everyone who correctly does the work it takes to develop a pick technique that is consistent and reliable, just like a master’s.
Glenn Martin: What are some of your unique ideas and methods covered in the DVD?
Ney Mello: There are several actual types of pick strokes that are used, and they all have their function. There are different pick angles to consider for different types of articulation. There is finger, wrist and forearm interactions and at times one is used exclusively or it may be a combination of wrist and index/ thumb or forearm with doorknob type motion or sideways motion. A master will use all of these or most of them often without much conscious awareness. By the time they are known as performers it has all become second nature. So for the person who wants to know how to do that, it is necessary to know all the motions and variables, because without knowing what you are doing, you simply will not be able to deliberately develop it to a very high level and avoid plateaus. Plateaus happen when one is missing key motions or motion combinations. When the awareness is not on these details you just stall and it gets very depressing. I have codified all these variables so the player can have a set of technical elements to deliberately and consciously practice.
There are synergistic combinations that are used for hyper-fast passages that are not used for very fast passages. It is a subtle game of technical optimization of these variables to serve the musical purpose. There is a chapter on physical training to prevent injuries. There is a more mentally intensive chapter on practicing for pure speed with a metronome. Pure speed development is the development of your ability to hear every note at high speeds. There was a time when I could not hear very note at say…230 bpm, I heard the general contour of the phrase and was able to play it, but later I developed a method to speed up the mind so it feels comfortable at those speeds as if it was 60bpm. That is also a chapter in the DVD. The student / player, then can apply all these methods and elements to the specific music they are working on. For this reason there are no typical exercises. You can find thousands of those exercises in countless books, some of which you already own! and use them or use your own licks and phrases. I show you precisely what a master actually does to play those and how he practices them. There is a step-by-step chapter on how to practice extremely effectively, in order to make progress as fast as one can.
Glenn Martin: Fascinating! You also privately help some world class recording artists with very specific personal picking issues in their right hand. What are some of the problems you often encounter with performers or student pick technique?
Ney Mello: Most of the time the professionals often have accurate repeatability issues; Loudness deficiencies when they cannot play acoustic guitar with enough power to be heard in a group and sometimes it is specific techniques they want to develop, like sweep picking and have not been able to do it on their own or have plateaued. For less experienced players, I often act as a detail application supervisor, if you will, to make sure that they are actually doing what is on the DVD. There are a lot of factors to keep in mind to someone who has never really looked close enough at their right hand. Others just want to get results as fast as they can and having me guiding directly and confirming the accuracy of their understanding is worth a lot to them if they have a career to attend to and not much time to absorb the great amount of detail in my DVD. The level of detail absorption and comprehension is the difference between mastering the pick and not quite mastering it.
Glenn Martin: What advice do you have for someone starting to play with a pick?
Ney Mello: Be very, very patient or chose another career of hobby! [ laughs ] I laugh know, but it was not easy fun to get here..far from it! The pick is as demanding as a violin bow and as challenging as classical finger technique. I play both so I have experienced both. Therefore one needs to start with the most versatile ergonomic hand position which does not come naturally because untrained wrist and forearm muscles lead one into bad crutch-type habits. Almost None of the great masters of the pick who play both acoustic and electric with equal grace and power have the commonly seen bad habits in form and those who overcame those habits have openly stated in print that they would have done it with the ergonomically friendly way had they known it when they started. It is a matter of either you spend ages struggling to overcome anatomically unfriendly habits or you adopt the body- friendly forms and get to make music almost right away by comparison. The piano and violin technique has had a few centuries of development, but now we are catching up with the pick to the point that I heard a well know classical concert performer in NY, say upon watching a DVD of Al Di Meola live in Germany that I had brought as a present: It makes want to play like Al with a pick! Now that is a staggering assessment coming from a classical guitarist!. Of course there are form variations in pick grip style, depending on the shape of your thumb for example or your psychological bent to tilt it one way or another but the usable range falls within certain anatomical parameters in terms of permitting the necessary precision and power and not courting overuse injuries. The basic principle is that the more versatile you want to be , the more freedom of motion and lack of impediments you will need to have in your form. What works for distorted shred guitar will not work for blues or jazz or acoustic guitar playing like manouche style or bluegrass. So the novice has to cultivate vision in terms of what he may want to play stylistically in the future so as not to chose to adopt burdening right hand limitations that will be very frustrating later. The more technical freedom one wants the more patience and humility one needs. The term virtuoso means full of virtue. So the virtues of persistence, patience, humility, discipline, etc.… have to be developed as well. The more one follows them the faster one progresses, if one understands how to practice and what to practice.
Glenn Martin: Speaking of that: How do you see the evolution of pick playing in the near future and beyond?
Ney Mello: Well.. We have seen in the last 5 years the attainment of very fast speeds on a par with any other instrument and speed per se is not a rarity anymore as long as one knows what to do in great detail and puts in the necessary time. Classical tremolo is now very feasible with a pick and yet as hard to develop as the finger-style tremolo by the way (laughs) I think we have conquered all the interval skips and single note vocabulary fluency that was once the exclusive domain of either classical or flamenco guitar. I see perhaps more development of hybrid picking technique and wide interval playing, but musically, as done on violin or piano or sax ..like Eric Dolphy, instead of forced for effect. Interestingly enough, I found that the great jazz master (who happens to be my cousin) Gustavo Assis Brasil issued several books on hybrid picking. I recommend very highly his books for an extremely comprehensive view of the potential of hybrid picking in any genre of music. I would like to say that any technique is the product of a musical idea that needs to come out. Not the other way around as is often believed. So one’s technical development follows certain paths because we need to express certain musical realities. Any exercise one does is directly connected to the musical content and in fact is the musical content. This is a concept well understood in classical training that needs to be realized in rock, jazz, blues, etc.… The great players and improvisers know this, but it is apparently not yet the mainstream view to develop one’s pick technique at this time.
Glenn Martin: What are the pitfalls in technique that you see musicians falling into? Any recommendations on how to avoid them?
Ney Mello: The pitfalls I see are due to not being able to see the obvious factors that are right in front of us. For example all technique is self- presenting to us. It is the physical embodiment of the music and not just something we master to play the music. Technique is the music presented in physical form. We are presented by the situation with what to do but we don’t do it because we ignore the obvious signs . When we start we look only at our physical condition which is, a that time, out of shape for the pick . We don’t look at what the best form and motion is for what we need to do because we are too busy getting comfortable in regards to our weaknesses. So instead of seeing the right thing we seek to get comfortable by blocking the freedom of our right hand to support it. The support should come from trained muscles , not from unnecessary and inhibiting crutches of all types.. you see. In that way we are already limiting ourselves from the very start. if we instead were more patient and gradually developed our forearm muscles we would feel very comfortable using them (once developed) to stabilize our hand for example. Often we will default mentally to using an easier technique due to impatience to develop the right one. If you look at a great master, his sound is always clear and articulate. You hear the music very well. There are no easy shortcuts if you want to be great at playing music very well. I say that because music is infinite in expressive content and to express that you need to develop each time you technique to do it justice. Justice to the music must come first , not adaptation and watering down of music to fit our technical inadequacies.
Glenn Martin: If you had to pick the worse technical weakness you see in pick players, what would it be?
Ney Mello: Besides anchoring the right hand rigidly to the guitar top at all times and stifling any fluid motion, I would say, the main weak spot I have observed in many players is that when they play fast they lose their power…I mean they play soft…much softer in volume than when they play slow, and that is very common. The great players, on the other hand retain their power at ant speed.. they are not forced to play softer due to lack of foundational technique. If they play soft at high speed it is because the want it at that time for artistic reasons, and you can verify that when they chose to play with great articulation and volume at high speeds, they do it easily. You notice this on acoustic guitar and on clean electric. It takes a lot of patience and awareness of what motions and dynamics to practice to master that level of playing, but too many are impatient to play fast and so they stay at a disappointing level of dramatic expression. That can be avoided!
Glenn Martin: Very interesting…
Ney Mello: You know, Keith Jarret has said that he already changed his technique at least twice in his career, because of expanding musical demands. People say: Why change and have to learn again if you sound great already? It is because you need to sound different because the music is different. Music is not static and so the technique cannot be static either, as it embodies the music. Al Di Meola stated that his right hand technique develops and re-develops during the course of the years. If you are truly developing you have to develop technically as well…Another example is Pat Martino who developed hyper-speed sweep patterns and Schoenberg-like intervallic string skipping you can hear on the original Joyous Lake record even though his expression does not require hyper-speed sweep picking most of the time , but it did at that time in the mid 70s and it surprised everyone in a delightful way. These are all musical directives that push us to develop the ensuing techniques.
Glenn Martin: And that happens to the left hand as well?
Ney Mello: The same applies to the left hand, where I see rigidity of form where there should be fluidity of motion. The tendency to grasp the neck hard and tight for control instead of taking the time to learn the motion is another flow inhibitor. Power has to be dispensed on a musical basis, not as a means to try to force the arms and hand to execute the motions at al times. Additionally, constant states of tension limit endurance, dynamics, accuracy, and even how much power you can release when musically necessary.
Glenn Martin: Does the size or shape of the pick influence the technique?
Ney Mello: Yes to some degree but not as much as people imagine, but in my view the real question is: Does the music require a certain type of pick or not!? Artists often change their picks through time and even use two or several types at the same time for different purposes. It depends on how different feels and tones matter at the time. I use different types for acoustic and electric and sometimes I will use the exact same pick for both. This comes from following the mandates of musical need as opposed to saying to myself something like this is the best shape and thickness.. the most efficient..etc… All that is unmusical thinking to my mind because music requires different types of efficiency and tone. I suppose one could say that at any given time, which may last years or months, there will be optimal thicknesses and shapes for that moment.
Glenn Martin: Great. What would you recommend to musicians who are trying to develop their right hand technique to fit the music as you say…?
Ney Mello: Start in the natural order of things: Music first…Always as far as I experience it. Look at what you want to play first , and not at what techniques you need to know… and then try to make music…It does not work that way. Your music is the technique. And by that I mean…Find out in your heart how the music really wants to be articulated; How it sounds right to you, and then make that your subject of technical development. Take a lick and see if you want it totally legato or not, do you want it on the first string because of the bright sound? or or the third string for a more fully round sound or on two strings? . All these will require very different techniques and will feel very different. If your heart tells you clear staccato run then don’t play with hammer-ons and pull offs just because it may be easier to you. Be true to music. On the the other hand if the music calls for hammer-ons then use them and don’t make it more complex for any ideological reasons. I see sometimes cases of students and even some players not using the right technique at the right time when they know better, because they impose their own ideology on the music and think it is either cheating or too easy to do it as they know it should…instead of just being an artist and playing what is right for the music they start getting in the way with all sorts of super-imposed mental head trips that are very far from where one has to be to express music with the right techniques at the right times .
Glenn Martin: You play and record with some of the world’s top musicians, like Scott Ambush, Cheikh Ndoye, Sean Rickman, David Dyson, Victor Wiliams, Broto Roy..the list goes on…We have talked about the difference in attitude with world class musicians. Would you elaborate a bit on what happens for example in rehearsal with musicians of that caliber, for the benefit of the readers who have not yet experienced a situation like that? What sets them apart in technical terms and personal attitude towards music?
Ney Mello: The more masterful the player the simpler things are in terms of personal communications. It is the opposite of what people think it must be. There are no personal issues with insecurities and egotism. No one has anything to prove and everyone is there to serve music not ego or a need to be admired for one’s skill. With less experienced players there is often an uncomfortable feel that they are trying too hard to impress or to make their mark and to prove their skill to gain approval. That is very unproductive and extremely unmusical. With master players, there is nothing but music and the fun of it. What is interesting to many is that if we discuss passages and phrasing or harmonies or rhythms, there is no technical talk that much. It is more like the music is sung or hummed, you know like in India every musician has to sing their lines…It is the same basic concept: You just sing it to them and they sing their part to you which looks very unusual to someone watching! [laughs]. All technical data is in the charts anyway, written notation or chord charts, or both. The competitive aspect is not present. One has to be open to the grace of inspiration and also to learn the parts [laughs] ..for that to happen the mind has to be free of all the common ego-related distractions. In my experience, the greater the artist the more they can handle anything and adapt to almost anything without making a fuss about it or trying to impose themselves unnecessarily. .and one very important thing: Be prepared for unrehearsed changes in form and sometimes structure when performing live. You see…when you get inspired you will change things on the fly onstage and to play at that level one has to be able to follow and contribute to the new experience that was just born. That is why one works one’s time with a metronome and one’s ear harmonically. I actually wrote an article on specific metronome usage for professionals.
Glenn Martin: That certainly was very interesting and useful. There is a lot for the reader to contemplate. Thanks Ney for this conversation and for being so gracious with your time and wisdom and much continued success in your future projects.
Ney Mello: Thank you very much or asking me Glenn. The pleasure is all mine. I think we need more than ever to help the new musicians and to guide all who love to make music as much we possibly can. I am learning everyday and I am very grateful to be allowed to do what I do.