Diary of A Bad Guitar Player: Playing in the Band

I never had a band, exactly. When I first started playing guitar, I played with anyone I could find to play with. This was mostly just jamming- though calling it “jamming” is probably generous. After a while, my cousin and I joined forces with a drummer and tried to start a band. We called it the Psychedelic Aliens and we played whatever Phish or Grateful Dead songs we could best approximate. We did this three or four times, never got anything down, never had set rehearsals and never sound like much. That was the closest I got to being in a band.

I really wanted to be in a band. I just didn’t know how to pull it off at that point. By the time I was in college, I had set my sights on other artistic ambitions and given up on the guitar as anything much more than a hobby. I played a few “gigs” at college functions as a solo act, covering Dylan songs, sounding bad and feeling awkward until I shelved the guitar as a mere hobby. It’s been a great hobby for my entire life. Now I play songs for kids when they will let me or around the occasional campfire. Mostly though, I just play alone.

But lately, this has started to change. When you reach a certain age- or more accurately, when your kids reach a certain age- you begin making new friends with the parents of your kids’ friends. Early this year, a few of us, realizing that we all play guitar, decided to set up a regular jam. That jam is slowly starting to evolve into something like a band. We have songs we rehearse. We have parts to those songs we are supposed to play. It is fun and energizing and a little bit awkward. There is a enough drinking and socializing to give it a relaxed feel, but there is enough focus on the music to make it more than just four dads hanging out with their guitars. It isn’t exactly a band just yet, but it isn’t not a band either.

The dynamics that shape a band have been memorized in dozens of movies and documentaries. They are fertile ground for stories for a good reason. There are extremes within those dynamics. Bruce Springsteen earned the nickname “the Boss” through his total and complete control of his band, while Jerry Garcia spent 30 years as the leader of the Grateful Dead insisting he would not be the leader of the Grateful Dead. The greatest rock band ever, The Beatles, disbanded fifty years ago, but the complex web of relationships in that band still fascinates the world. All of this is to say that being in a band is complicated, even if you are just four dads butchering classic rock tunes.

As my little jam session gets just slightly more ambitious, I find myself sympathizing with Jerry Garcia. Jerry famously just wanted to have fun. He hated authority and didn’t want to become “the boss” of his band. But he was only ever going to be the leader, if only because he was the musical genius of the group and paired with Robert Hunter, the primary songsmith. I am neither of those things, but I have started to feel everyone looking at me when it comes to “what should we play?” and other musical issues. I don’t want answer those questions, I just want to play.


Poem of the Day 6/18/20- Forever Searching for John Hurt

A ’28 pressing from Okeh records,

Sent them on their way,

Looking for Old John Hurt,

Forgotten in his day.

Nothing to much to tell them

Where the bluesman might be

But the song Avalon Blues.

Maybe Georgia, or Mississippi?

Chasing down fingers

Fast as lightning,

A worn-out angel’s voice

With which to sing.

Driving Southern highways,

New York to the Gulf Coast,

To Honky Tonks and Cotton Fields

Searchin’ for a ghost.

A gentle voice on record,

Recorded years ago,

Pressed and sold and forgotten

Gone home and growing old.

Do any highways yet remain,

Dusty, worn and weathered,

Battered and blood-stained,

That lead to the hills that overlook

The birthplace of the blues,

To a hometown (always on my mind)

To the voice of an old and weary angel,

And the pretty girls who want his time?

One day, I’ll get in my car and drive

Down every forgotten back road I can find

And forever search for Old John Hurt

It’s Nobody’s Dirty Business but mine.

Diary of a Bad Guitar Player: Wrestling with Jimi

The past three months in quarantine have greatly reinvigorated my love for playing the guitar and with the help of Lee Anderson and the Play Guitar Podcast, I have found a way of practicing that is yielding big results. The feeling of progress is intoxicating. It is not so much that I am vastly improved as a player. It is more the feeling that improvement is possible and, with the right approach, even assured.

Now that I am in a habit of regular practice, the question that I struggle with the most is what to practice. I am not a professional with gigs to rehearse for, and while I have plenty of method books I could learn from, following one of those dogmatically does not really interest me. I have been selecting songs that I want to learn and techniques that I need to improve upon and breaking down a practice schedule from there. So, as I completed the last cycle of songs and techniques, I had to pick something new to play. I wanted to get away from fingerstyle arrangements for a little while, but still learn a song where a solo guitar would sound complete by itself. I decided to chase after a tune that has been a goal of mine to learn for almost as long as I have been playing the guitar: Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing.

My reservation with this pick was that I was almost certain that it is too difficult for me. I was not wrong about that, but over a week into battling my way through it, I can honestly say trying to play it has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had playing the guitar.

It is difficult to explain exactly why it has been such an incredible experience for me. It is definitely not because I am mastering the tune or playing Jimi’s complex lines with anything resembling competence. I am not. In a week of daily practice, I have got to the point where I am able to reproduce about three bars of the intro, in time, every two or three attempts. Often, it sounds terrible. Often, I am lost. I am no more confident that I will be able to learn this song now then I was when I started and possibly even less confident. And I am having a blast.

Learning Little Wing (or trying to learn it) is such an amazing experience for me because it is a masterpiece. I don’t think I was aware just how much this is true until I began tying to learn it note for note. Jimi is such a unique player and Little Wing is such a perfect example of everything I love about his playing. I don’t feel like I am just learning a song, I feel like I am learning what is possible on a guitar. The song isn’t Jimi’s flashiest playing, but it is full of subtle details- tiny rhythmic nuances, small passing phrases- that are pure genius. The song is played at a slow pace and it never feels like Jimi is playing fast but he packs every bar. The dynamics in his playing- the way he moves from loud to soft- are  a revelation. Everything is played with purpose and clarity, everything combines to create the song’s dreamscape-feeling.

At my present pace, I will probably be able to play Little Wing somewhere around 2023 or so. Sticking with a song that is that far above my head is probably not sustainable, but at this point, I can’t imagine giving up on it. I have no fear of failing with this song, because every minute spent working at it seems like a minor victory.

Diary of a Bad Guitar Player: Feeling vs Counting

I have been thinking about rhythm a great deal this week after writing about “locking-in” last week. Rhythm is so essential to music- play it poorly and you will sound terrible, play it well and even simple things shine. But while rhythm is an essential concept, it is not a simple one. Playing with great rhythm doesn’t just mean being precisely on time with a metronome’s beat. Great players will push and pull the beat but never lose it or sound off. Small changes in emphasis go a long way to giving the beat it’s power.

One thing that I have noticed in my playing is that I tend toward two extremes in rhythm. I will either feel the beat or count the beat. When I am feeling the beat, I am usually playing along to a recording or playing with the Yousician program and the full band is there to tell me where the beat is. I might be able to count it some as I am going along but I am not there counting each beat. My foot is tapping and I might be playing in time perfectly (or just murdering the time, depending on how well I know the part I am playing) but my mind is not focused on counting each beat.

This is nothing like the way I play when I am practicing new songs or concepts. Then, I have the metronome on and I am counting every beat, even every note, in my head without exception. In this scenario, I am usually the only one playing or maybe I am playing to a backing track I laid down, but I am not supported by a full accompaniment of sounds playing in time.

Both of these relationships to the beat are important but, for me, at this point, they are very distinct and very different. When I am counting the beat carefully and precisely, I am forcing all of my playing, pushing the sound to exactly their correct place in the beat and, if I am off, I am usually rushing notes or catch up or falling apart completely and needing to start over. When I am feeling the beat, I am playing looser and if I am off, I will either just hang back to catch the rhythm again or I will so lost that I will be unable to find the beat correctly, ear-cringing will follow.

What I want to do now is find a way to do both in both scenarios. In those times when I am playing along to recordings, I want to push myself to keep count and be more directly conscious of the exact time. In playing alone or practicing, I want to ease back from needing each note to have its place in time voiced in my head and feel the beat I am creating without depending so much on that kind of over-counting. I think playing with the metronome, leaving out beats, and playing other games like that with it will help, but ultimately, great time is probably just something that you have to develop by constantly playing and counting and feeling the beat.

Diary of a Bad Guitar Player: Let’s talk about Locking In

Hello again, my guitar playing friends.

Well, it has been another week in quarantine and another week of solid practice. I am seeing progress on the two new fingerstyle songs I am working on and that feels great. On the other hand, I have really gotten away from ear training this week and I feel guilty about that. It is always the most difficult to work on the things that produce the fewest tangible results. Learning a song means, at some point, you will be able to sit down in front of people and play that song and that makes the practicing that goes into it feel like it is leading to something. With so many other important things- like ear training- there is no singular endpoint to imagine and look forward to and I think that makes it feel overwhelming.

I have begun to add ten minutes of speed work into the beginning of my practices and I think that is something I will stick with. I started doing this because I would just feel stiff at the beginning of each practice session. I mixed simple finger exercises with playing scales to warm-up my fingers and in just a few days I started to see small increases in my speed with these. I have also noticed that this warm-up is a great rhythm warm-up as well. When I am playing at the end of my fingers’ ability to keep up, I have to “lock-in” to the rhythm even as I am losing it. As I fall behind, I try to stay mentally connected to the beat even though I am not playing with it physically.

“Locking-in” is something I have been thinking about a lot this week while I am playing. I notice that this kind of progression happens whenever I learn a new fingerstyle arrangement. At first, when I am primarily focused on which fingers go where, I react to the beat as best I can. I always work with a metronome and always start at a slow pace. Sometimes I am pushing the beat when I know the fingerings and slipping behind it when I am struggling with them. Once I get used to the fingerings a little- not even close to mastering them, but just familiar with them- getting them fit into the rhythm starts to be the main thing I am working on. I’ll miss notes and slip behind or ahead of the beat, but I am trying to hold on to it each bar and with each note. Then the biggest change in the process happens and it seems to happen without me intending for it to happen. Suddenly, I start playing the song or a section of the song and I will “lock-in.”

When I say “lock-in” I certainly don’t mean that I suddenly begin playing with rhythmic precision. Instead, I feel like the beat takes over. I am now feeling the beat first and playing with it. Or playing to it. Or both. I am not sure exactly what the change really is, but something is different. If I screw up a note or chord change, I am still locked into the beat as I am going and hitting the next note or chord on time in spite of the error. Even if I don’t hit the next note, I am still being carried forward by the beat and hearing my place in it. I think this is biggest turning point in the process of learning a new song. Once this happens, everything opens up. I start hearing the song, even before I am playing it correctly and my fingers start to move to the right notes with far less effort.

I have been thinking about this so much because I think that the faster I can get to this place, the faster I can learn things on the guitar. Because I am not sure exactly why it begins to happen when it does, I have a hard time seeing how to get to it quicker, but I think that doing so is key. If this is all very esoteric and incomprehensible, I apologize. I can imagine better musicians out there thinking, “of course you have to lock-in, dumbass, that is what playing music is,” but I don’t think what I am trying to describe is something that only I struggle with.

Obvious or esoteric or just plain confusing as it may be, I think the difference between playing on time with the beat and being “locked-in” is one of the core ideas in music. I have heard tons of musicians talk about, but never in terms of how they approach it when learning a new song or technique or concept. I suspect this because so much of this is intuitive, or it is supposed to be. When it comes to music, I have never had much intuitive ability and I imagine that is why I am a bad guitar player. Regardless, this is an idea that fascinates me and if I have to analytically bludgeon it into submission, so be it. Whatever it takes to stop sucking.

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.