Composer, author, lecturer, guitar teacher



You’ve reached Rikky’s web site, where you can read about my music, books on songwriting and guitar technique, the courses I teach, and more.

Latest news

I’m pleased to report that I have completed my work on the revised edition of the book Chord Master which will be published hopefully in the spring of 2016. The main change is the addition of a new beginners’ section consisting of 20 new audio / chord progression examples that I hope will be of use to people trying the guitar for the first time. The idea for them came from my increasing awareness as a guitar teacher that standard chord shapes are not always easy for people to take in their stride. The book also has some chord boxes for a tuning not included in my book How To Write Songs in Altered Guitar Tunings. The chord progressions (forty in all) are being reset in a simple musical notation that makes them easier to read than in the old edition. As I may have mentioned before there is a possibility that I will work on a new edition of Melody. But before that I have my book on Marc Bolan to complete.

Other stuff going on includes re-organizing my music room to make more space and make it a room more conducive to writing and recording in. I’ve been sorting things and have been reminded of the hundred or so songs I have recorded which I would like to release – so there is going to be some work done on those hopefully. I have six albums of songs, each with their own musical identity, to go with my album of guitar music released in 2013.

My symphathon (listening to a different symphony each day) is still going, although there have been three days when I didn’t manage one. I console myself with the thought there have been other days when I’ve heard two or three. I’m shaping my thoughts on this experience for a possible article. It was interesting to see Scottish composer James Macmillan writing on the symphony in a positive way in the UK magazine Standpoint recently.

The majority of the new ones I hear (new to me) do not make me want to hear them again. But it has been a delight to find others which I do want to get to know. I can recommend at the relatively easy listening end of the symphonic repertoire Yoshimatsu’s Symphony 4 on Chandos from about 2001. It was consciously written as an ode to innocence, spring and childhood, and uses an elegant and very approachable idiom, and lasts 28 minutes. I know some would dismiss it as lightweight, but there’s a place for this music too when it is done as well and with a good spirit.

Otherwise I have enjoyed the new release of The Beatles 1 with remastered sound and video and am currently reading Pete Townshend’s autobiography, reminding me in part of days long ago when, in a room high above the Atlantic, I would happily wile away several hours singing my way through most of sea-washed Quadrophenia and more of the Who’s greatest.

Music, silence and horrible Mr Bravo!

[Postcard from Finland no.4] While I was away at the Sibelius music festival I ordered the latest issue of Finnish Music Quarterly, an English-language journal, a special Sibelius issue. Among the articles one by Lotta Wennakoski titled ‘Content with content’ caught my eye. In it she writes at one point of the magic of a live acoustic concert:

It is a quite unique experience, to be in an audience together yet alone. And the unbroken silence immediately before and after the music is most eloquent … I also believe … that the magic of acoustic music that I referred to above will persist even amid the oceans of digital sound that overwhelms us. Live concerts, with their magical silences, will possibly become an even more valuable everyday luxury in the future.

This spoke to me strongly. Before each Sibelius piece performed in Lahti, the conductor would wait for a minute, even two, with the orchestra and the audience, in near silence, before the music began. This sets a boundary and clears a space in which the first strands of the music emerge without being in competition with anything else, and in which everyone has symbolically made it the priority. Similarly, when the last notes have died away ten, fifteen, twenty, maybe forty minutes later, there is another silence. This silence is highly-charged, full of emotion and meaning and the sense of a journey and an arrival and of being changed. Sometimes it is a moment of triumph; sometimes a quieter radiance.

Every time I have heard Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony, for example, it is only with a great reluctance that anyone breaks the silence at the end, because no-one wants to return from that astonishing place where the music finishes. Having only attended rock concerts until about 17 years ago, this has been a new experience and a delightful one too.

But sadly such silences are easily spoilt. So a poison bouquet for horrible Mr Bravo! who at the end of two of the Lahti concerts, shouted within a second of the last note, thus robbing everyone else of that rich moment of silent fullness. It is as if such characters have to demonstrate their cultural superiority. Bravo! comes the shout. What it really means is: I have judged this a good performance, the rest of you may now follow with your clapping. The final chord becomes a winning goal in a cup final.

But fortunately he (and it is almost invariably a ‘he’) can’t be everywhere …


Postcard from Finland no.3

One of the legendary stories associated with Jean Sibelius is that which concerns the non-appearance and fate of his Eighth symphony. Sibelius produced no finished major orchestral works after the end of the 1920s (his last being the Seventh symphony and the suite of music for a production of The Tempest). He embarked on an Eighth symphony and in the early 1930s there was an international hope that it would shortly be performed. At this time Sibelius’ popularity as a composer was very high and there was huge anticipation for another symphony. Unfortunately it never materialized, and in the mid-1940s we know that he burned a number of manuscripts and it is thought the Eighth was one of the works. Even after this he occasionally mentioned to close friends that he was working on another symphony, though whether this was ever on paper is doubtful (Sibelius often composed in his mind before he wrote anything down). So the Eighth is regarded as one of the great lost works of the C20th.

When I was at the Sibelius Festival I had the chance to chat with Timo Virtanen, who has been working on and editing Sibelius for a long time. He made it possible for a few fragments of unperformed music to be recorded by the BIS label on a CD called The Unknown Sibelius. These fragments last about 3 minutes. They might be part of the Eighth’s composition or not – we don’t know. They are late Sibelius. Timo published an interesting article on the status of some of the manuscript drafts Sibelius left, partly as a reply to an article by another scholar Nors Josephson who created something of a wave by claiming that the Eighth could be reconstructed. Timo told me that this created a number of enquiries from both composers and conductors around the world who wanted to know if this was true and whether they could have the task of completing it or conducting the premiere! Timo had to point out that this wasn’t possible from the scraps and drafts that are left. Whether anything else will turn up remains to be seen.

He also told me that many composers had thanked him for the three minutes of fragments because they found them inspiring for their own work. That I can certainly understand, as they are quite haunting.

The writer Julian Barnes wrote about the relative silence of Sibelius’ final 30 years in a short fiction piece called ‘The Silence’ published in the magazine Granta vol76 Winter 2001 – a special issue dedicated to music.

Postcard from Finland no.2

Here are some links from the Lahti Sibelius Festival. The Finnish broadcaster YLE filmed all the concerts and broadcast them live in Finland. You can watch some of them on their website for the next couple of weeks. This link brings up ‘The Oceanides’ tone poem:

Most nights I was sitting in the choir section behind and above the orchestra, in the middle. You can see that’s pretty close.

There is an audio interview with Jon Anderson of the rock band Yes. He was present for the whole festival (a couple of minutes after someone told me that I walked straight past him in the foyer).

(I think you will have to copy this addresses into your browser – they’re not coming up as automatic links.) Other features can be found here:

Several evenings we came out of the concert hall at about 9.30pm to fantastic sunsets over the lake:

During a late afternoon reception hosted by the Finnish Sibelius Society we were told that the 150th anniversary of Sibelius’ birth is being celebrated by over 1500 concerts around the world!

You can find out more about Sibelius by visiting the webpage of the UK group Sibelius One.



Postcard from Finland no.1

I’ve just spent a wonderful musical week at the Sibelius Festival in Lahti, Finland. Lahti is a small city about 100km north of Helsinki and located on the shore of a very big lake. Right by the lake is the Sibelius Hall, a beautiful structure which melds an old industrial brick building with a brand-new glass box in which is housed a modern wooden concert hall with superb acoustics. The two are joined by the Forest Hall foyer which has enormous glass frontage through which you can see the lake and sky, and staircases that look like trees branching upward.

The Sibelius Festival is held every year and usually lasts about three and a half days (three evening concerts, several chamber concerts in the day and some talks). It is entirely dedicated to the music of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) who is Finland’s national composer. This year the Festival ran for seven days to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth. I’ve been twice before, but this year’s was unmissable.

During the week we heard all seven symphonies, the 75 minute choral epic Kullervo, the violin concerto, the Lemminkainen suite, The Wood Nymph, Luonnatar and the tone poems Tapiola, The Bard, The Oceanides, Pohjola’s Daughter, and En Saga, and several shorter pieces. If you don’t know Sibelius’ music the tone poems are a good place to start as they are generally between 8-20 minutes long and in a single movement. They’re all highly atmospheric.

More stories from the Festival in the next few days.

The jangle of Django

It has been awhile since I posted due to work leading up to and on the Oxford Experience summer school, my 18th I think since I started teaching on the programme. This year I taught week-long courses on the Battle of Britain, Symbolist art and literature (with reference to Sibelius, Nielsen and Yeats), and the ever-popular Beatles course. I also gave four lectures and two musical performances – the latter with my musical partner guitarist / songwriter Roger Dalrymple.

With all that out of the way for another year it’s time to catch-up with other things, including upgrading some of my composing software. I will shortly be working on a revised version of my book Chord Master. Before that I will write a long essay on the Led Zeppelin track ‘Achilles Last Stand’ for the Tight But Loose magazine. That magazine published my piece on Zeppelin at Earl’s Court in May 1975. I also have my Marc Bolan research to pick up and I am contemplating a book connected with the Beatles.

Recently I bought a compilation of Django Reinhardt’s recordings. To the uninitiated they have a strong cultural ambience – bohemian Parisian cafes in 1937 – and / or making you feel as though you’ve suddenly stepped into a Woody Allen film. It’s quite good driving music, and obviously the guitar-playing is special, but after awhile the incessant gritty tramp of the Hot Club’s 2/4 rhythm becomes monotonous. Likewise, the chromatic jazz harmony also palls – the rule seems to be never use a straight major or minor when you can squeeze in a 13b5#9 – evoking a brittle and frivolous emotional range. But then I’m not a jazz fan. But it made me feel that perhaps the ‘year zero’ of primitive three-chord rock’n’roll in the mid-50s was a necessary simplifying and purefying of popular music to burn the crop and sow the soil for the achievements of the 1960s and beyond. This is interesting, because there are parallels with what happened in classical music at the turn of the century when it purged itself of an elaborate chromatic romantic language.

My symphony-a-day is still going, so I must have passed the 200 mark now. I continue to make some pleasing discoveries – yesterday for example Rautavaara Symphony 5 which has a remarkable final few minutes that I must investigate more. If you’re unfamiliar with the Finnish composer, try his atmospheric Cantus Arcticus (Concerto for birds and orchestra) on Naxos.

The reel thing

A week ago I had a memorable day at the offices of a music publisher in London. It was the research I’ve been doing on Marc Bolan (T Rex) which took me there. I was permitted to have a look at the company’s library of tapes.

For an hour and more I handled the original multi-track reels on which Marc Bolan recorded his songs 45 years ago and garnered some useful information about the recordings from the notes written on the back of the boxes. I have in the past heard people say how magical it is to hold the original tape of a celebrated song and have never considered whether I might find it so also. But I confess I did.

It was both thrilling and moving to hold these tapes whose magnetized iron oxide was imprinted by the sounds of guitars and voices and strings and percussion as a song was captured for the very first time. Thrilling because one feels very close to the musical event. Moving because the tape boxes are worn and battered, and some of them may not be played ever again (they have to some degree been digitized and are probably unplaybale without baking), and the person who wrote those songs left this life in 1977. I stood in front of the metal shelves that hold rows of boxes, reflecting on the fact that this was a significant part of a life’s work.

I was also able to listen to some CD backup copies of different takes and mixes. It was quite a day.

June news

My summer school teaching is looming, so I will soon be engaged with preparing some new material, including the music of Sibelius and Nielsen. At present, I’m teaching the music of Brahms, and exploring the British music scene in the early C20th as a way in to the art song of Peter Warlock (1894-1930). And I have just completed the fifth month of my symphony-a-day ‘symphathon’.

My research time this year has been taken up researching the earlier music career of Marc Bolan and that has been very interesting. I have a pretty clear idea of the themes nd the scope of the book. Exploring some of the musical equipment used in the late 1960s has been fun too. A new double CD Best of T Rex called For All The Cats has just appeared and I can recommend it to anyone not familiar with T Rex. The first two-thirds of the second CD in particular captures the enchantment of his earlier songs.

Creatively, I’m stockpiling song ideas for an album. Not sure when I’ll get a chance to record it.

I’ve just finished reading a book called The New Shostakovich by Ian MacDonald, first published in the late 80s and since revised and reissued. MacDonald is well-known as the author of one of the best books on The Beatles Revolution in the Head. The book is a harrowing account of the terrible conditions under which Shostakovich composed his 15 symphonies. It raises many interesting points about music and meaning, and music and irony / satire. I was struck by this passage: ‘By reserving the right to project our private meanings on his music, we distance ourselves from the very life impacts that Shostakovich, far from seeking to evade, met head-on and made the subject of his work. To the extent that we turn art into whatever we want it to mean, we forfeit the chance of being changed by it.’ MacDonald then quotes someone saying of the effect of the Eleventh Symphony: ‘The poetics of shock. For the first time in my life, I left a concert thinking about others instead of myself.’

Remembering John Renbourn

A week or so ago the death was announced of the British acoustic guitarist John Renbourn. Renbourn was one of a small group of acoustic players in the early 1960s, along with Davy Graham and Bert Jansch, who developed a style that became known as ‘folk-baroque’.

The style was eclectic, embracing elements of blues, jazz, tradition and contemporary folk (Graham also brought in elements of African music heard in Morocco). It was played largely fingerstyle on steel-strung acoustics, taking full advantage of the longer sustain of the upper strings in comparison to the nylon strings of a classical guitar. Where string guages permitted, there could be a certain amount of string-bending. The style evolved to be musically complete, in that a player would provide bass, harmony and top melody. It could be technically demanding, though some of the simpler syncopated right-hand picking patterns were easy and gave great results. Altered tunings were also developed by these players.

Graham, Jansch and Renbourn influenced people such as Paul Simon, Martin Carthy, Gordon Giltrap, Donovan, and Jimmy Page.

Having made several albums solo and in partnership with Bert Jansch, Renbourn and Jansch became part of the folk-rock group Pentangle who enjoyed considerable success in the eclectic music scene of the second half of the 60s. After the group split, Renbourn pursued many musical interests, including Elizabethan lute music, making many arrangements for steel-string guitar of tunes from the 1590s. He was a composer and a scholar with a wide grasp of music.

I saw John Renbourn play on several occasions and interviewed him. I found him a charming, thoughtful and personable man with a deep and inspiring commitment to music. His playing was precise, tasteful,  and elegant, and imbued with a humane spirit.

If you haven’t sampled his music there are many budget compilations of his solo work and of Pentangle. You can’t go wrong with the solo albums he released in the 1970s such as The Hermit.

When the circus moves on

The other night I was channel-surfing and stumbled on an edition of the talent show Britain’s Got Talent at just the moment when a young man with a Fender Strat was about to perform in front of the audience. These talent shows tend to be dominated by histrionic singers, so I was curious for a moment to see what this young man would do and how it would go down. What followed was a ghastly collision of a hostile context with a fundamental lack of musicality, prefaced by the usual humiliation of such contestants.

Said young man (who I think was 26) began a solo rendition of ‘Beat It’ and within half a minute had abandoned the singing bit for the guitar solo. He dropped to his knees, executed some Van Halenesque tapping, and finished off by playing the guitar with his teeth in the manner of Hendrix. These bits didn’t connect up. The fact that he was running his guitar into a very small Fender combo amp didn’t help much either. By this point the jury had voted him off and the audience weren’t impressed either.

What struck me about this was not the humiliation he was put through, which you expect from those programmes. It was the way he had unconsciously set himself up for it by not understanding what would work in performance. Playing electric guitar parts on your own that need a full band backing is never a good idea. Although he had some technical ability (probably hampered by nerves) and was apparently a guitar teacher (!), he didn’t seem to realise that in 2015 those theatrical guitar show-off gestures don’t mean anything. The only place for playing guitar with your teeth is in a Hendrix tribute band. Outside of that, it doesn’t mean anything other than perhaps you have watched videos of Jimi playing guitar in 1970, and your dentist may be unhappy next visit.

It didn’t mean that much when Hendrix himself was doing it. His creative genius as a guitarist lies in other things altogether, despite the fact that rock documentaries continue to try to convince us that he was a great guitarist because he liked setting fire to his guitar or smashing it up. It’s a bit like doing a Hendrix version of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ in 2015. It’s either a Hendrix tribute gesture or pure establishment, or both. But it can’t mean what it meant in 1969, not least because the electric guitar doesn’t mean what it meant in 1969.

Whereas, if this contestant had concentrated on making his own musical statement – maybe not requiring much guitar technique – he might have fared better, and even if he had been voted out it would have had a kind of integrity to which the vote was irrelevant.

An important lesson really about musicality and musical awareness.

Now, where’s my lighter fuel … I fancy Strat Stroganoff for dinner …


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 135 other followers

%d bloggers like this: