Diary of a Bad Guitar Player: Fingerstyle learning and deep listening

A million days into quarantine (approximately), my practice on the guitar has fallen into a steady routine. I am working on new fingerstyle songs, practicing the ones I learned the last week, working on improving on one or two of the songs I know and play regularly with a focus on implying the changes and doing some ear training.

The Ear training is by far the greatest challenge for me. This week, I focused hard on singing intervals to advance my interval recognition. It is tedious work. I have been using a chromatic tuner and playing an interval, then singing that interval. Since it often takes me several tries to get the notes in tune and then get the interval correct, this is slow work. Painfully slow. After a few intervals, I move on to singing through the major scale, then on just playing the major scale slowly, listening carefully to the intervals. After ten or fifteen minutes of this, I start to feel like an insane person, but I can see very small glimmers of progress, so I plod along at it.

The biggest discovery I have made by going through this drudgery is that there exists different levels of listening. The deep listening it takes to hear the notes and intervals in this ear training practice is different for the way I listen to music riding in the car, or even the way that I listen back to improvisations I have played, thinking critically about them. I spend a lot of time listen carefully to music because I love it and I am fascinated by it, but to hear the notes with total clarity, I have to listen much deeper,  and that is something I am just getting a handle on. I couldn’t even begin to listen to most pop or rock music this way at this point because it is just too dense. I think the closest I get to this kind of deep listening in casual music listening is when I listen to Christopher Parkening playing Eric Satie on the classical guitar. Those slow, ringing melodies are about all I can handle listening in this way.

On the other side of things, learning the fingerstyle arrangement of Harvest Moon this week was a brutal reminder of one- how slow I am at learning me pieces- and two- how the learning curve goes for me. I am not sure if this a typical experience, but whenever I learn challenging new pieces of music the process is basically three to five days of utter hopelessness where I am stabbing at bits of melody and chords as the metronome clicks by. I lose time, I play the wrong notes, I start again, it goes the same or maybe worse. Then, mysteriously, I am playing sections of the song with some degree of competence. The transition between hopeless noob and a competent player is not a smooth line rising upward at all. I suck, badly, for ever and then without warning, I am suddenly playing something that could be recognized as music.

The catch is that the first inklings of competence on a tune are still a million miles from it sounding good. One of the things I enjoy most about fingerstyle guitar arrangements is that once you have the basic notes down, the challenge becomes about the details of the melody and harmony, getting the right emphasis on notes and all the other minor details. That part of the process takes me months, but it never feels like work because I am playing the song. That first step of learning the basics always kicks my ass.


Diary of a Bad Guitar Player- The Guitar 30 Challenge, Week 3

Week 3

Weeks 3 was very good from a practice standpoint. The sessions went quickly and orderly and I really feel like I am getting some of the results I was hoping for. I see the notes better on the guitar neck and I am able to move around much easier. This week was focused on the mixolydian mode and the diminished half-whole scale. Both scales fell under my fingers easily and I was able to push tempos up some when practicing without feeling like I was just running through the patterns mindlessly.

Day 1: C & G: It is nice to be back on familiar ground with the mixolydian scale and I breezed through those at a higher tempo than usual. The Half/Whole Diminished scale is a little bit of a challenge but the pattern falls under my fingers easier than the minor scales did (or maybe I’m getting better at this?). I like the diminished scale for adding some new sounds into blues (per Lee Anderson’s suggestion on the Play Guitar Podcastnot long ago) and I’m using some blues backing tracks for the improv part of practice, mixing the Mixo and Dim patterns as best I can.

Day 2: D & A & E: I’m finding that I easily confuse the Mixolydian positions with the root key’s major scale modes so this is good practice at both hearing and playing the differences. The diminished scale is coming along nicely and feels like it will be easy enough to add into my vocabulary. I hit up three keys today to get back on track and still kept to a tight 30 minutes.

Days 3-6: These days of steady practice all bleed into each other now and there isn’t much that distinguishes one day from the next. The mixolydian scale, being one of the major scale modes, doesn’t present too much of a challenge except that I frequently mix up the major scale form from the key with the mixolydian form, especially in the 2nd and 6th positions. The diminished scale is more of a challenge but it is not nearly as difficult as the harmonic minor was and I find I am even beginning to be able to move from one position to another without much struggle. I’ll plan a review day for Saturday to go over all the scales and modes in a couple of keys since I can feel things like the harmonic minor scale slipping away from me already.

Day 7: I decided again to spend the final day dedicated to mixolydian and diminished sounds playing with creating a loop and playing over it using these scales. This experience seems to be as demanding as simply practicing, but in entirely different ways. The drum beats- created via Fruity Loops- are never so simple that I can easily lock into their rhythm and playing the backing track takes as much time, or even more than playing the solos. I’m never really entirely happy with them either. Improvising over the loop I created this week was particularly hard, not only because the diminished scale is a “out-there” kind of sound that is a challenge to use, but also because this exercise really demands creating solos that feels like it fits the music behind it or even completes it. I am learning that I need to keep better track of where I am in the music as I solo and that my solos need to be more like complete ideas, a story instead of a group of random phrases. I don’t think I succeed at all with this week’s attempt, but the challenge of these quick recordings is definitely helping my playing. I am not sure that it helped that I started the day today by listening to Coltrane’s Stardust and McCoy Tyner’s Sahara, both of which were inspirational. Inspiration is all well and good but without any skills to back it up, it can go very wrong.

Here is the result which almost resembles music.

Diary of A Bad Guitar Player: Week 1 of the Guitar 30 Challenge

I am happy to say I completed the first week of the Guitar 30 Challenge without missing a practice session and I am seeing some of the results I was hoping to see. I keep a running log of each day’s practice so I can share my journey from #badguitarplayer to #OKguitarplayer with the world.

Day 1: Day 1 went very well, but it is obvious that I will need to do just two keys per day because even playing in three keys I am very comfortable with (C,G,D) and playing scales I know fairly well, I still needed extra time in each key and could not push the speed of the key up. I also discovered I need to set up a quick recording and playback system for the play section since I had to spend extra time messing around trying to record a quick backing track. When I get to scales I can’t play well, I might not be able to get through two keys, but I’ll tackle that problem as I move forward.

Day 2: I can see now that I actually know my major scale positions and, by extension, the modes better than I might have thought, but inconsistent practice definitely hasn’t helped my ability to use them fluidly. I did not expect to have so much trouble in the Keys of A and E, but I struggled with both and found myself gravitating toward playing in C and G positions, probably because I play A min over C and E min over G so much. I still have not found an adequate method of making a quick loop to play over in the improvising part of my practice.

Day 3: Today, I discovered that the Keys of B and F# are about as familiar to me as the language of Urdu-I have heard it, I know it exists and I don’t understand it at all. Good to know. The funny is, though, I actually enjoyed the sound of these unexplored keys a great deal and three days into practicing, I am definitely seeing the connection between the scale patterns better even in positions that are strange to me. I can also see that it was ludacris to think I could play through all the positions and have time to do it again at a higher speed. That might work if I just played each position once, but that would definitely not help me visualize them on the fretboard better, which is the whole point. I think I will have to work on speed in these patterns some other time. Right now, I’m letting them sit at 90 bmp and playing several times through. Tomorrow I’ll try playing them less and turning up the speed, but I doubt I’ll get far with that if I’m keeping these sessions to 30 minutes.

Day 4: C# and Ab (G#): One hallmark of being a bad guitar player is never playing the things that you are really bad at and constantly playing the things that you are only a little bit bad at. So, obviously, I landed on C and G instead of C# and Ab at least five times in practicing today. But at least I caught myself. In the improving section, I could hear that mistake over the backing track and adjust. I had a blast playing in these keys and I’m going to play in the more and more some songs into them for fun and because they sound different and more exciting to me. I settled on using the Music Maker JAM app for looping. It is fairly easy to make a quick 4-bar loop and I had fun with using a drum track behind the chords. I also managed to get through playing at two different speeds today, 90 bmp and 120 bmp.

Day 5: Eb And Bb: I am surprised and happy to see how much the steady practice is improving my ability to visualize the scales all over the fretboard. I’m back to keys that I am familiar with and playing with ease in every position. Eb is a key that I should play in more and was harder than Bb which I play in regularly, but with all the patterns under my fingers now, it’s mostly just a matter of remembering the notes that make up the scale now.

Day 6: F and C: Back to keys that I am comfortable, I pushed the speed up today and even though I have mainly been playing eighth notes at 90bmp, I found them easy at 140 bmp which is very exciting. I’m looking forward to moving into minor keys and less familiar sounds and shapes next week. Recording a loop to play over is still an issue in part because I’m playing in the morning and I can’t push the volume up enough. #Dadlife. Overall though, it’s been almost a week, I’ve been through all the keys and I still find this completely engaging.

Day 7: Weakest Keys: With a week of playing done, I’m very happy with my improvement here. Today I focused on playing freely in two keys I was weakest at and it went… OK.

This improv was almost totally unplanned and still, it is mostly on key and there is some nice lines and phrasings. I focused on trying to use a few positions and I felt comfortable in all of them which was nice to see happening in these keys. I still don’t “play the changes” really at all and my leads are more a collection of lines than a complete solo, but hey, this is progress.

Diary of Bad Guitar Player: The Guitar 30 Challenge

Although I did not plan it, by happy coincidence, one of my favorite guitar podcasts, The Play Guitar Podcast with Lee Anderson launched a 30-day practice challenge that began the day after I introduced my Diary of a Bad Guitar Player.  You can learn about the challenge and Lee’s excellent content here.

Because consistent practice is something I desperately need and because I have fewer excuses with the pandemic keeping me home, this was perfect timing. I decided to address a weakness I have had for a long time with this challenge- my knowledge of the fretboard.

I like many bad guitar players, I tend to play in a “locked-in-the-box” style when I am playing leads. I have a grasp of major and pentatonic scales patterns in one position and I play them to death. I want to be more free moving between them and more free moving up and down the neck, so that is what I’m focusing on for a solid month.

The plan

My practice plan for the month for this #guitar30challenge goes as follows.

W1: Major Pent and Major scale

W2: Minor Pent, Harmonic Minor, Melodic Minor

W3: Mixolydian, Diminished

W4: Whole Tone

I am going to go through the cycle of 5ths up then back down each week (to make myself playing in less comfortable keys more), 3 keys per day, 4-5 different positions per scale, playing scales at a medium pace first, then pushing the speed up the second time through, Finally I will spend some time playing freely at a medium pace focusing on connecting positions and scales up and down the neck. I’m letting the “play” and “technique” blend together on that last step to keep it fun.

I am going to recap my progress here once a week so please subscribe or bookmark this blog if you want to see how it goes.

Diary of A Bad Guitar Player- Introduction

Hi, my name is Deck and I am a bad guitar player.  Wow, it feels good to get that off my chest.

If the title of this series hasn’t clued you in, this is not a guitar blog that will be full of helpful advice, pro tips or keen musical insights. If I were capable of such things, I probably wouldn’t be a bad guitar player. Yet, here we are. I have been playing guitar now for close to three decades and I don’t sound much better than I did two or three years into it. It was clear early on that I was not a natural talent on the instrument or in music in general. But I have now been doing this thing and doing it badly for the majority of my life and as I continue to play the instrument and play it poorly I am more and more conscious of the place that it stand in my life.

I will never be a professional musician. My family tolerates my playing but doesn’t enjoy it. I have been called tone deaf by classically trained professionals and bewildered better players with my erratic rhythm. Yet, I am still going to play the guitar. I will be playing it for the rest of my life. Maybe, some day I won’t be as terrible as I am now, but at some level I will always be a bad guitar player. I am not so sure that is such a bad thing to be.

I should be clear though, I am not wholly incompetent. I can play some. I can do many basic things just fine and a few things that might even temporarily create the impression that I am actually a good guitar player. If you are a beginner, still building those callouses and learning your cowboy chords, you would probably not classify me as a “bad guitar.” If you are a professional with a kind heart and patience, you might take the charitable view of my playing and describe it as “not bad.” That is very kind of you. I have worked hard to achieve this level of mediocrity, but not hard enough to actually be good at playing this damn thing.

I decided to keep this running log of my ineptitude here in public view for two reasons. First, I am hoping that this running feature will be a kind of motivational tool to focus my playing around some series of goals or milestones. I don’t have gigs to practice for or any other organizing principle to my playing. I can continue to be just as bad as ever at playing the guitar and no one is likely to ever even notice. If playing here and occasionally posting videos of said playing helps me be slightly less terrible, it will be worth it. The second reason for creating this running diary of something that I don’t do well at all is that I have recently come around to a certain fascination about why I continue to pursue something I am not at all likely to be good at, to which I have no natural inclination and to which I have no discernable reason for doing at all. My working theory is that trying to play music has been one of the few things that has continued to challenge me, to teach me and to inspire me throughout my life, even in spite of the fact that I have never achieved anything worth noting in pursuing it. All of the “wins” that come from playing are completely personal; they are mine alone. That feels like something worth exploring and something that music can give us that very few other pursuits can. If can explore that, I think it will be worth the effort.

I hope this journal will be entertaining for players and non-players alike. I will do my best to be honest and unflinching. I will post videos of my struggles and (hopefully) of my few successes. I hope I might find a purpose to playing music that is wholly separate from chasing fame or musical achievement. I hope my struggles help someone else struggling to play or struggling to understand why they play. I hope it won’t be all bad, but I am a bad guitar player, so that might be hoping for too much.