In this episode we’re speaking with David Wallimann, who has one of the most popular guitar channels on YouTube with over 100,000 subscribers there. As always when we’re interviewing an expert in a particular instrument, we recommend staying tuned even if you don’t play that instrument – because very little of what we cover is really instrument-specific.
As well as his popularity as a guitar educator, David is a composer and recording artist who has collaborated with the likes of Dweezil Zappa. And as you’ll hear in this episode he is just a lovely down-to-earth guy whose perspective on learning music and improvising is refreshing and seriously perceptive. David has his own guitar courses available at GuitarPlayback.com as well as a free Music Theory DNA course for guitarists at GuitarInfusion.com – something we suspect you’ll want to check out after hearing him describe it in this episode.
In our conversation we talk about:
- How to break free of fretboard patterns and “improvisation by numbers” with a counterintuitive exercise.
- The big problem that puts people off music theory and the surprising impact it can have on your musical creativity.
- The huge benefit you get from putting ego to one side and embracing your own uniqueness in music – both for improvisation, and for your musical life in general.
We loved chatting with David and are really glad to feature his unique perspective as part of Improv Month. As you’ll hear us say in this episode, we do think that guitar players tend to have a very particular relationship with music theory and with improvising – but David’s take on it all is something that would be valuable for any musician to take on board. We certainly hope you’ll enjoy hearing about it.
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Christopher: Welcome to the show David. Thank you for joining us today.
David: Thank you so much for having me.
Christopher: So I’ve been diving deep into your Youtube channel lately and I feel like I’ve gotten to know quite a bit about David Walliman today but for the listener and for myself can you explain where David Walliman came from? (Laughs) How did you first get started in music and how did you become the musician and the music educator you are today?
David: That’s a great, loaded question.
Christopher: (Laughs) No pressure.
David: I think it’s, like most musicians it’s always been there. I always loved music, I always wanted to be a musician and in some ways I think I always, I’ve always been a musician. Obviously it’s a journey, right? I was not born, like, with the knowledge that I have today and in the same way in ten years I hopefully won’t have the knowledge I have today. So it’s always a journey but I just remember growing up, you know, always being fascinated with harmony and harmonizing things like kid songs and things like that and wanted to understand how it worked and, yeah, but I think it really started with just a love and appreciation for sounds and music and that kind of thing.
Christopher: That’s interesting and was guitar your first instrument? Were you a guitarist from day one?
David: I think guitar is probably the instrument that allowed me to choose something else than my voice but I wouldn’t say that I had this absolute fascination with guitar prior to getting into guitar. I started with guitar because my mom had a classical guitar and I started playing a little bit with it but the love for the instrument probably came after. I mean, I enjoyed it but he passion for the guitar came after I started guitar.
Christopher: Hm. You said something really interesting in passing there which was that you had a love for the musical sounds, for the sounds of music. It sounds like you were really an ear-led musician when you were first learning, is that right?
David: Yeah. That’s, yeah, exactly, that’s exactly right. Just, I remember making up little songs, you know, in my mind before I knew how all that worked and I think through my life as a musician I always tried to keep that aspect of music and not get to much into the, I mean, understand music theory but always go back to that initial creative process in my mind. I can’t remember your question. (Laughs) I hope that answered it.
Christopher: Yeah, absolutely, just whether you were ear lead, and were you taking, kind of, formal guitar lessons? Were you self-taught? What did it look like for you for the first five or ten years learning guitar?
David: I think a lot of personal research. There’s this debate, you know, there has been this debate on my channel, I have a couple of videos about being self-taught and unfortunately they were misunderstood, but —
Christopher: Well, I think to be fair, the title of one of them is Self-Taught Musicians Suck, it is not? (Laughs)
David: Well, something like that. You caught me, there. Yes. (Laughs) I don’t believe that at all, first of all. You know, people have to watch the video to understand what I meant but I think, yeah, the first ten years were probably just me just asking questions like, “Why does this chord work, here?” or “Why does this chord not work here?” and that lead me to try to find answers. Some of these answers were found in books, some in, there was no YouTube at the time but maybe educational VHS tapes or taking a license to get particular answer that I was looking for. So it was kind of a combination of everything but I think the main thing to take out of this if people listening here are wondering if they should take lessons or if they should be self-taught I think really what’s important is just to have the researcher mind when you’re trying to develop that, understand music. Just ask the right questions and then go wherever you can to find the answers but I wouldn’t recommend necessarily taking a lesson without an answer that you would want to get from that.
Christopher: Mm-hm. That’s a really great tip, I think, for someone who is kind of finding their own way and trying to judge when to go seek an expert versus trying to figure it out themselves.
Christopher: So was it just a straight-line path to success from there? Were you always destined for a career in music and music education or how did it go once you kind of got into the swing of learning guitar?
David: Well, first of all, your question means that the, kind of hints that I have achieved success but I don’t know if that’s the case.
Christopher: Well, I think you’re a very modest man. I think with 100,000 YouTube subscribers and, you know, a successful composing career, as well, a lot of people would say that’s success in music.
David: I guess it’s all relative but to answer your question I think in the grand, you know, with the grand picture it always moved towards something better and even if, you know, at some times I was definitely discouraged those times taught me things that helped me down the road understand even more, you know, why something works so, I mean, it didn’t happen, like, from one day to the other it just, and still, again I don’t feel that I’m there but it’s the journey, right, that counts and it’s really a fun journey, I think.
Christopher: And was it guided with the kind of research mind you mentioned a moment ago? Was it all kind of exploration and trying to find answers for the questions that jumped out at you?
David: Yeah, exactly. Trying to find why is this thing that I’m facing a frustrating thing, or why am I stuck, or I think this applies to not just music but anything in life, you know, you have a problem, you’re facing something difficult. Just ask your inner self, like, all the questions that you can and those could be what led me here or how do I get out of this or is this really a bad situation? Maybe there is something good in there. And musically that looked like — an example is there was this song, I can’t remember the title but I kept hearing it on the radio, a very popular song, it was probably a French song, too, I’m born and raised in France, and I loved that song. I didn’t understand why so that triggered one of those many quests as the, you know, big adventure of understanding music is and so I had to ask myself, “Why do I love this song? It’s not particularly the style that I’m into,” and so I kept asking questions. “Is it a rhythm thing? Is it an interval that I’m hearing? Is it — what is it?” and that led me down a path that, I think it was the scale, I can’t remember. Maybe it was the first time I’d heard the Lydian scale or the Lydian mode and that’s what I mean by, like, being an investigator in your life as a musician. So, yeah.
Christopher: Fantastic. I’m reminded of an episode with had with Lisa McCormick who has a Note to Self method and it’s very much about being mindful in the process of learning music and she said essentially when you find yourself getting frustrated or stuck just try and remind yourself to be curious because if you’re curious you’re immediately into a different frame of mind and you want to be open to the answer and you’re interested to seek the answer. It sounds like that’s very much the kind of attitude we’ve cultivated.
David: Yeah. That’s exactly it. That’s very good, what you said. I like that. Yeah.
Christopher: And were there any kind of, apart from this overall mindset, were there any epiphanies or, kind of, mental models that helped you along the way to develop? Because you’ve managed to maintain a really creative streak as you’ve mastered the guitar which, I think, unfortunately a lot of guitar players miss out on as they kind of hone their technique and get very polished with the fingerwork. They maybe don’t manage to connect so much with the creative side. How did you think about that as you learned?
David: Yeah. So that kind of came by accident but I was definitely in that mental frame where, “Gosh, I’m not a good guitar player. I’m not a good musician,” and then I was looking at other people and “How do they do that and really love what they’re doing, but I’m not there?” and then one day this guitar player I was looking up to, we were just, he heard me play. We were jamming or I can’t remember what happened and he asked me, “How do you do that?” and I kept thinking about that, like, “This guy’s asking me how I did that?” and that led me down a path of realizing that it’s not that what I’m doing is really difficult but it’s not him and then I started realizing that really it’s just like a language, like, when I’m talking to you here people are listening and they can , you know, recognize that David is talking here and not you and it’s the same with music and then I realized if I can, like, embrace those things that come naturally to me and that I enjoy personally then there’s really no competition. There’s just different people coming together and telling a story in a band or a jam or a recording and every person has his own, you know, aspect to bring in and that realization really, really helped me and my growth as a musician because there was no more competing, no more getting down because I couldn’t play the way that that person played because I realized that I’ll never play the way he plays, not because I’m a bad musician but because I’m not, you know, him and vice versa and that really helped me, so that was the biggest, I think, lesson I learned in my career.
Christopher: Fantastic. I love that and it’s so relevant, I think to our theme this month of improv because you really do need to put your ego aside and, you know, embrace your individuality if you’re gonna succeed at improvisation rather than just kind of mimicking or learning by rote and I think that was something that immediately connected me with your channel was you have the tagline, “Helping Guitar Players Find Their Voice” and I think over on your guitar playback site where you have your courses the tagline is “Ignite Your Music Personality” and I think both of those beautifully reflect what you just said, you know, it’s not about playing exactly like your hero. It’s about playing as well as them in your own way, maybe.
David: Exactly. Yes. Yeah. Be happy with who you are musically and in life and in family and all those aspects of life.
Christopher: So let me ask the blunt question, then, because I think probably everyone in the audience knows that guitar players are a unique breed.
Christopher: Have you found the guitarists are receptive to this message rather than just, you know, being told how to play Van Halen riffs note-by-note with tab?
David: Mm-hm. I think there are as many guitar players as there are people in life and that’s my approach, my enjoyment of music. It doesn’t mean that it’s the absolutely way and that’s, you know, you have to think in the way that I think. That’s just me and so, yes, I have found that other guitar players are really into perfecting the exact technique of Van Halen and playing it exactly note-for-note and that’s okay if they find joy in that as long as there are no egos involved. That’s the only real thing that I dislike in music and that’s what I try to avoid. Besides that, I think, you know, I don’t think there’s one way. I think if you find enjoyment in music, whether you’re just learning one song and that’s all you wanna do and you play that song perfectly and you’re happy and you’re not, you know, being arrogant about it, perfect. That’s, I’m all about that and for those who want to, you know, develop their personality on the instrument that’s great and I can help them do that but, yeah, there’s a little bit of everything and that’s okay. That’s cool.
Christopher: Fantastic. I’m reminded a bit of an interview we did with Brad Davis because I think you have the same combination of total expertise coupled with real humility, you know, the way you just described things it would be easy to assume you were just teaching just kind of basic beginner’s guitar but in fact looking at your YouTube tutorial, looking at your courses in guitar playback, you’re teaching some pretty sophisticated stuff but I love that you managed to couple that with an egoless approach to developing your own voice and focusing on, in my opinion, what really matters.
David: Yeah. Thank you.
Christopher: So I mentioned there guitar players being a unique breed and that was one reason I was particularly keen to have you on as part of Improv Month to provide a bit of perspective on improv from a guitarist’s point of view and I think, you know, whenever we talk on this podcast about a particular instrument it’s always fascinating how much the lessons actually apply to any instrument. At the same time there are, I think some specifics to guitar that guitar players can get kind of blinkered by and caught up in and the example I’ve pointed to a couple of times in Improv Month is fretboard patterns and how for a lot of guitarists improvising means you pick the right fretboard pattern and then you noodle up and down playing notes kind of at random and you hope it comes out sounding good. What’s your opinion on that and how do you approach the use or misuse of fretboard patterns when it comes to improvisation?
David: That’s a really good question and it’s something that I personally have to fight every day in my own playing. I think what happens is that, and probably the same thing with other instruments, I’m not sure, but when you start playing, you know, you have to start somewhere and so you start working with patterns and shapes and things like that and fingers have a tendency to just go back to the things that they have mastered which makes sense, right? We are creatures of habit, you know, we love, like, you know, familiar things, right, and I think a lot of guitar players tend to let their fingers do the playing which, yeah, well, what else would be doing the playing? It makes sense but there is more to it. If you let your fingers do the playing they’re always going to rely on the things that they’re comfortable with. Most of the time it’s that first position of the minor pentatonic scale and it’s a great scale because most notes will work in a lot of different contexts but for you to improvise over, you know, this piece using that minor pentatonic scale and then do another improv, quote-end-quote improv, on another piece and then isolate those solos most of the time it’s gonna sound the same and I think the biggest thing that has helped me and I’m trying to convey that to my students is to actually break that cycle and the only way I know how to do that is to literally and physically put the guitar down, not in your hands, because if you do you’re gonna start to, you’re holding it a certain way and you’re starting to think like a guitar player and your fingers are going to automatically almost take control of the thought process because you’re gonna start, you know, doing some things virtually with your fingers.
Put your guitar down and just listen whether you’re listening to a backing track or nothing, silence, and just listen inside and make up something in your mind. Pretty simple, (sings) dat-da-da-da-da, dat-da-da-dum, for example, very basic but if you take the time to do that you will find that what you’re singing is not necessarily comfortable and it’s not necessarily coming from your fingers but it’s coming from who you really are and if you take the time to do that with simple notes and then grab your instrument, replicate what you sang so that you can associate with the sounds in your head different muscle movements that’s, I think, the key to really enjoying the music and growing as a musician because you’re now reclaiming control over your music instead of your fingers taking control and it’s kind of a give-and-take. It has to be, you know, really connected, but oftentimes guitar players forget about music really comes from inside and your instrument is, I say this all of the time, the instrument is your pencil and it’s not the pencil who tells the story, it’s the author so learn how to use your guitar, your pencil, your instrument and learn how to use it to really tell your story of what’s inside of you. So that’s kind of my approach.
Christopher: I love that. That’s a really great attitude to take to it and I love that metaphor, too. What does that look like in practical terms? If I come to you, say, as a 40-year-old hobbyist guitar player? I know my pentatonic, I’m going to local blues jams and doing little solos in the section, how do I get a couple of steps closer to that idea of expressing my own story?
David: Yeah, you know, I really think that it’s really as simple as literally, like I said, like, putting your guitar down and just singing and listening and replicating that and I’ve had a lot of students, you know, I tell that to most of my students and “Yeah, okay, I get it,” but they never actually do do it because they do it halfway, like, they listen to the backing track but they have the guitar in their hand, that’s the important part, not to have it because automatically the way you sit, the posture, all of that kind of like triggers this mental thing where I’m a guitar player whereas you’re not, you’re a person who speaks musically and with no guitar in your hand you’ll start finding things really do work. So that’s what I would tell them. It’s very, very simple how to do it.
Christopher: Very cool, and I think that was something I picked up in one of your video about why you shouldn’t learn scales, you should learn chords instead. You were talking about the instrument being a tool for expressing your musical ideas not, you know, the music itself.
David: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly.
Christopher: Fantastic and for you did this all come easy when it was, you know, part of your own journey, learning to improvise, learning to compose as well, did you find it all came naturally? Were you having to do exercises day by day to develop this instinct for improv?
David: I think that it was difficult but maybe not in the way that you might think. It was difficult to get myself the freedom to do it, really, because for a long time I’ve thought, “Well, I can’t really improv until I know, like, ten thousand scales or until I know how to read music,” and all of those things and that took a while for me to break through, break free from that but then I, you know, I always go back, maybe it’s because I have kids, young kids and you do too. Maybe it’s just realizing that while my kid tells me amazing stories and she’s three and a half and she’s improvising, she’s making up stuff and I’m fascinated by that, well, I guess I could do it, too, but Dara doesn’t know how to read or write or grammar rules when she does it and it’s cool so just realizing that with kids I think that really helped me to get myself the freedom to improvise.
So in that regard it wasn’t hard but then, you know, by doing the exercise of putting your guitar down and improvising vocally, first it’s a slow process but I also realized that there’s a lot of things that I already know that are, kind of, almost ingrained in you because you listen to music and you don’t have necessarily to study all the rules to use them. It can be very helpful, which we will probably get into later but I think, yeah, the hardest thing was to give myself freedom to do it and be myself.
Christopher: And when you’re in the moment maybe doing the exercise of singing and trying to replicate it on your instrument are there any, kind of, mental models or frameworks you find useful, like using intervals or solfège or scale degree numbers? How are you thinking about it to make that connection to the guitar?
David: I think if anything it would be intervals, most likely, so visualizing mentally and on the instrument the intervals is really important, how, you know, a single note by itself is just a sound but that sound can have the potential to become twelve different things with the intervals and just, kind of listening to what that note would become as a major third or as a fourth and how does it make you feel and it’s a personal quest, like, I don’t think there is, like, you know there’s this general idea that a major third is happy. I understand what it means but if for you, you hear a major third and it makes you feel really melancholic or sad that’s okay. That’s your understanding of that but taking the time to hear intervals and associate emotions to them I think is very, very important when you improvise, so, yes, intervals would be my, you know, applicable way of improvising on the instrument.
Christopher: Great, I think that it’s a more popular approach with guitarist and bassists than a lot of other instruments. I think just because there is that obvious visual equivalency on the fretboard, you know, you can understand, “Okay if I want to play a perfect fourth, this is what my fingers should be doing,” and that definitely, I think, makes things a step easier.
David: Yeah. Mm-hm.
Christopher: Fantastic, and so, I don’t know want to keep belaboring the point that guitarists are a unique animal and one other area where I think they get a bad rap is the area of music theory where a lot of guitarists go a really long way without learning any theory, maybe not even learning traditional music notation, because you can go with tab. What’s your, given that you’re such a creative and expressive musician, what’s your perspective on the usefulness of theory and how much is worth learning?
David: I think it’s extremely useful because it will help you have more choices and more, even more expression in your music. You know, some players who never had music theory are very expressive but they, because they don’t understand music theory they tend to think that if you understand what you’re playing then that’s going to take away from your feeling of playing and I was there too, like, I remember when I was, like, in my early twenties I took a music theory course. That was the first one I ever took and I was one of those guys, because I could express myself, I mean, in some ways on the instrument and I thought that understanding what I was going to play would take away from that magic feeling and I went to the music theory teacher and I told him after the first lesson with respect but, “I don’t know that this is for me because I don’t want this to happen,” and he was awesome.
He told me that he understood but it wasn’t going to take away from the magic. It was actually going to enhance the magic that I would get. You know, sometimes I’d hear a solo and this one note came and I was, like, “Yes. That’s awesome. I don’t want to understand it because it’s going to demystify it and take it away, ” and it’s not true, okay? It’s going to broaden your appreciation. So that’s the first thing I would say and I think the main thing with guitar players and maybe other musicians with music theory is the vocabulary around music theory, just the modes themselves, Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, those are, like, complicated words, right, and I think the vocabulary has a bad effect sometimes on people’s wanting to get into music theory which is kind of why I — maybe we’ll get into that later, but I’m offering this Music Theory DNA course which is all about breaking the language barrier and calling it something else. A scale, a mode is an alphabet and each, the story around it that I made up was that there’s this imaginary world which doesn’t exist and there’s multiple countries and if you want to visit this country which is called the Dorian country and communicate with those people all you need to do is learn their alphabet and the cool thing is it just has seven letters there and if you make up your words, it doesn’t matter. With those seven letters people will understand you and so modes and scales are just alphabets that allow you to visit different countries and it’s a passport, too. The more alphabets you know, the more countries you can visit. So the analogy is like the more modes you learn the more scales you learn the more theory concepts you learn, the more people you can talk to, the more places you can visit and musically, the more genres you can get into. I think, sorry, it’s kind of long-winded, but vocabulary is sublime, a lot of times.
Christopher: Yeah, I think — no, I think that’s a great answer and I like that with your Music DNA course or Music Theory DNA you are breaking down that barrier because I think it, there’s a huge intimidation factor from the terminology.
David: There is.
Christopher: And often the concepts, particularly if you explain them in the context of the instrument, aren’t that complex, right?
David: Right, yeah.
Christopher: They’re not that difficult once they click in your head. They’re super easy but when you put all of this labeling and abstract frameworks around it it can quickly get very overwhelming.
David: Yeah. It can.
Christopher: So tell me more about the Music Theory DNA course. Apart from explaining modes and having the nice metaphor of alphabets and different countries to visit and play in, what’s in that course? What do you tackle and what do you help with?
David: So mostly I set down the foundation so it’s very influenced with, it’s all based on intervals and how to visualize them, not necessarily on the instrument. That’s kind of the easy part, but the biggest thing is to understand, like, how, you know, a note by itself is just a sound and there’s different, that note can have multiple personalities depending on where it’s placed and then, like, I think understanding all of that, having that story really clear in your mind, like, the countries and the alphabets, anything else you come across as far as theory concepts, if you put it with that light it’s going to be very, very simple so it’s just laying down the foundation for people who have been playing for a while and are scared of music theory and don’t want to get into it because they think it’s such a huge mountain. After this free course it should just give them the realization that they can do it and it’s simpler than they think, just replace words with the ones that I teach you.
Christopher: Awesome and, you know, that kind of theory underpinnings of creative expression in music is a fantastic foundation to have and it’s not just improv where it empowers you. It’s also obviously really handy if you’re writing songs or composing. I’d love to hear a little bit about your own composing process. You know, you’ve produced several albums and they’re really fantastic music. I definitely encourage listeners to go check them out.
David: Thank you.
Christopher: I’d love to know how they come together for you. What does that process look like?
David: It kind of changes, really, from project to project but most of the time I will, you know, I’ll start with something, maybe a riff or an idea and then record that and then let it sit and I will try to record something, like, maybe it’s just a few bars and really do let it sit, and, you know, go on a walk or even go weeks without anything and then listen to it, again, with no instrument. That’s, like, the biggest thing, is, like, don’t grab an instrument because you’re gonna think like a guitar player and you might be missing out on cool ideas and just listen to it and without any expectations but to enjoy it and then when it comes to an abrupt stop because you didn’t know what else came just imagine what will come next and that’s your answer. So it’s not really music theory oriented at all, it’s really listening but where music theory really helps me, I think, as a composer is to arrange things after the fact.
Once I have that initial, you know, idea in my mind or hear the next part I write it, I record it and then it helps me add some ear candy that is maybe a little more interesting and harmonizing things and I don’t really compose with a theory mind. It helps me get unstuck, but —
Christopher: Sure, and it sounds like it serves the same purpose as in the improvisation context of helping you translate what you’re listening to inside out on to the instrument, is that right?
David: That’s it, yeah, exactly and also another aspect of understanding music theory is that it gives you more ideas. Just like a writer who, you know, might learn a few new words as he grows up, first those words are kind of awkward, you know, when you try to use them, a complicated word but later on when you understand how to use it it give you more choices and it just flows out.
Not having — French being my first language, first, when I learned English it was very, it wasn’t flowing and it was not natural. Now I can just talk to you and it just comes out without thinking about it but that’s a good example. Learning English could be learning music theory and then down the road just express yourself not thinking about how to spell a word or how they work but you just do it, so, yeah. It’s very ear-driven, for sure.
Christopher: Cool. So if we have any guitarists in the audience who’ve felt intimidated or confused by all of the terminology of music theory or haven’t really seen how theory could increase their creativity rather than limit it, I would highly encourage checking out David’s YouTube channel and their free Music Theory DNA course. We’ll have links to both of those in the show notes. David, apart from the, put-your-guitar-down tip you offered earlier, for the beginning improviser do you have any advice or suggestions that would help them go on to a successful path in learning to improvise?
David: Yeah. I think I’m assuming most guitar players are comfortable with the pentatonic scale. What I would say to them is that the pentatonic scale, which is a five-note scale is only two notes away from a whole new world of improvising and if you can figure out those two notes, which are going to change depending on the context, you’ll realize that you can still keep, like, all the comfort that you have with your pentatonic scales but you’d be a lot more flavorful by just adding two notes and here’s a clue for those who are listening to this, let’s consider the minor pentatonic scale which is a scale made of a root, minor third, fourth, fifth and a minor seventh. We’re missing the second and the sixth and there are two types of seconds, two types of sixths, major and minor, and if you can, like, start, you know, blending those together you will be playing modal, with modes, really quickly and all you need is to put names to those but you’re very close to being able to be a lot more flavorful just by adding a couple of notes to your patterns, already, you know.
Christopher: That is awesome advice. I wish I could go back and tell the teenage me that exact piece of advice because I was trapped at the pentatonic for far too long. At the same time, you know, these days we really focus a lot on the pentatonic at Musical U when we’re teaching people ear skills and scale degree recognition because like you just described it’s actually a really great starting point because it’s not that far from the full major scale but it is much more approachable and it’s easier to get your ear around whether you’re first starting out so I think that’s the ideal advice is to, you know, not abandon the pentatonic and jump straight into the full scale but to see it as just padding in a couple of extra notes.
David: Exactly. Yeah, that’s very good.
Christopher: Wonderful. Thank you so much again for joining us today, David, it’s been such a pleasure to get to hear a bit more about your projects and your perspective on improvisation and music theory.
David: Thank you.