Diary of A Bad Guitar Player: Alternate Universes

I must confess, I am scared of alternate tunings. I am not sure when in my near-30 years of being bad at playing guitar that the fear set in, but it is there now and it is quite real. I think it took root early on. After learning the basic chords and beginning to strum some songs, play some riffs and get my #guitarface on, it probably occurred to me that by changing the tuning of the guitar I would cast myself out in to a world of unknown patterns, of misplaced notes and general bewilderment. Once I took the time to get most of my scale patterns down, I was all the way out on alternate tunings. I was not about to let a few twists on a half-dozen pegs turn me into Donnie from the Big Lebowski- out of my element, like a child who walks into the middle of a movie…

So, no alternate tunings for me. Not for the many, many fingerstyle blues songs that I might learn in open G or open D. Not to add one of my favorite Dylan tunes- Buckets of Rain (played in open E)- to the setlist. Not to get the rhythm guitar sound that drives so many amazing Joni Mitchell tunes.

I would guess this not uncommon. It is intimidating to look at the six strings and twenty or more frets that make up a guitar. You naturally wonder how the hell anyone knows which note is which in that perplexing arrangement of steel and wood. Once you get a little bit of handle on it, you sure as hell don’t want to go back to that place where you are entirely unsure what the note on the next string is.

I realize now though, that this a mistake and it is exactly the kind of mistake that I tend to make. In fact, this the kind of mistake that is at the heart of my struggle to play music.

I am not comfortable not knowing things. I like to have some kind of understanding of a subject, a basic working knowledge I can build on. This is helpful in many areas of life, of course. It creates an impulse to research things, to commit things to memory, to read and learn and engage with a wide range of topics and ideas. Even in studying music, this is generally a good thing. I know far more about music theory than I need to as a result and that knowledge is often useful. The problem is that music- playing music specifically- is largely about experience and not information. That is why is requires practice and not study. By avoiding the difficult and uncertain terrain posed by alternate tunings, I avoided a way of playing that would depend on my ear and not my hands. It chose the security of knowledge over lessons only experience can teach.

My recent playing, most of which has been following Lee Anderson’s Play Guitar Academy, has pushed me to use my ear more. Playing leads of backing tracks, I am trying to find my way more by ear now than ever before. And I am happy to say it is working. I recognize when I hit chord tones, even if I don’t know exactly where I am in the progression. I also get lost in the progression much less often because I hear the changes better.

 It is encouraging, but it has also shown me my limitations. I still can’t reliably transcribe anything. I still feel lost trying to play over chords if I don’t know the key or the changes. And I am still baffled by alternate tunings. Now, however, I see that limitation as just another excuse. I don’t have a great ear- that is true. I have tried to hide behind knowing songs and theory and other tricks to dodge the discomfort of getting into a place where I don’t know what I should play. I can see now I need that discomfort. I need to try to play in different tunings. I need to get lost and not know the chords and find my way by ear alone. I am excited to try.


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: Week 4 of the Guitar 30 Challenge

The final week of the challenge was an interesting experience. I played the Whole Tone scale, which is something that jazz musicians use frequently but which I had never learned and really did not “get” from a sound perspective for the first days of practicing. I eventually started to hear it in context and that felt really positive, but I am still so uncertain as to how I’ll actually use it in my ordinary playing.

Day 1- C & G: Welcome to the whole tone scale, a strange scale that features the b5th and #5th and feels like a finger stretching exercise. I cannot get my ears around this one or begin to comprehend how to use it in any practical setting. It’s fun to play and because most forms of it progress down the neck it does feel like the perfect thing to be working on to finish this challenge and lock in my fretboard awareness. With no idea how to improvise with this scale, I tried playing some lines from a jazz book (Doug Munro’s 21st Century Jazz Guitar from Swing to Be-Bop) and didn’t fair much better.

Day 2: D & A &E: The fingering patterns for the whole tone scale are fun to play and are definitely helpful in pushing my fretboard awareness forward, but I still can’t rap my head around  the sounds. Playing with the sounds just leaves me baffled.

Day 3: B & F#: A breakthrough! From time to time, I have been stepping away from the electric guitar and playing on my classical guitar. Today I tried to use the F# whole tone scale between the  F# Augmented and B minor chords. Obviously F# Augmented is the best match but there was some interesting tones that went with B minor as well and the scale served to bridge the two sounds. I still don’t see myself going to this scale often, but at least there is something I can see using it for now.

Day 4: Ab & Eb: So I accidentally skipped C#, oops.

Day 5: Eb & Bb:  Another solid practice. I do feel like I understand the sound better now. I still don’t think it will be something I actually go to too often, but I after five days of playing it, I think I get it. A little. Maybe.

Day 6: F & C: For improv time, I went back to the Classical guitar and worked on playing F Aug and C7#5 by starting with the chord and improvising in the Whole Tone scale out of that hand position. I was really instructive and fun and I have way more confidence in adding this sound to my arsenal. I don’t play with Augmented chords a ton, but if I do, I think I can make this work in context, or I will be able to with more practice.

Day 7: The final day of the challenge was unremarkable. I had a good practice, working my way through the whole tone scale and then improvising with it over more augmented and 7#5 chords. If anything, today felt anti-climactic. I think I have got a lot of what I wanted out to get out of this challenge but I have not suddenly morphed into Kenny Burrell or Jimi Hendrix.

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 2 of the Guitar 30 Challenge

Week 2 Focus- Minor Pentatonic, Harmonic Minor, Melodic Minor

Week 2 was a great learning experience. Like many great learning experiences, it was alternately frustrating and enlightening, humiliating and invigorating.  I learned a lot about what I still need to learn and even managed to learn a little about what I was hoping to learn. Here is the day by day breakdown along with some cringe-worthy listens for your amusement.

Day 1: C, G – Well, this was humbling. I was feeling pretty good about myself after last week but throw some unfamiliar scales my way and the whole thing goes to hell. I didn’t even get through all of the key C in 30 minutes. Sure, I breezed through minor pentatonics, because, of course, that is the same forms as major pentatonics. Then I hit the harmonic minor. Wow, is this scale tricky! The leap from the b6 to the maj7 left me completely lost. Melodic minor was relatively easy in comparison. Even though I can’t play the damn thing at all, I found the harmonic minor completely inspiring. I loved the sounds here and I am going spend some time this week looking into how people actually use this weird scale in practice. The sound is very West Coast Cool Jazz and makes me want to bop around on it in the lower register.

Day 2: just D  This was the first day of my challenge where my practice was legitimately terrible. I had family stuff going on and could not practice at my usual morning time. Practicing in the evening, my energy wasn’t there. I was not focused and I got through very little productive work. It was lousy. I am also seeing just how much harder it is to play through patterns I don’t know. The major scales and the pentatonics are quite comfortable, but in these new patterns, I get lost easily and can’t always just hear the mistakes instantly.

Day 3: A, E, B: Better and more focused. I am back on track playing in the morning and feeling good about my efforts today. One cool thing about learning the melodic and harmonic minor scales is that they are pushing me to know where every note is on the fretboard without just relying on the patterns of major scales to get me there. Since that is the point of this whole challenge, I think it is well served. I have been writing the notes of the keys down for each scale at the top of the chart that shows the scale so I can reference them and that has been a real help.

Day 4: F# and C#: A very successful practice session although I never get through both the harmonic minor and the melodic minor positions completely. The highlight, however, was when I played over a loop of F#min mixing the harmonic minor and pentatonic minors. I really liked what I played and saw my solos developing something that resembles and arc. I did get lost once and wound up off key but, for me, this was still something of a breakthrough. You can listen here though the audio quality leaves much to be desired (these are just scratch tracks after all):


Day 5: Ab and Eb: Playing through all these scales is definitely locking in a greater awareness of the fretboard for me and opening up my improvising. I am far more focused on the harmonic minor and barely running through all the melodic minor forms, but the awareness is really developing. I am also seeing some improvement in my ear as I learn these new sounds, which is very exciting. In my improving today, I tried moving from Abmin to Ebmin with some success. I got a very interesting minor country “Ghost Town” sound from the scales. I’d shared that recording here, but getting quality audio is still an issue so I’ll aim for better on Saturday.

Day 6: Bb and F: I really question whether I have learned these scales at all. The harmonic minor scale still just does not fall under my fingers easily. The irony is, of course, that I love it and keep finding new sounds in it. Is there anything that defines being a bad guitar player more than being least able to play the things that you find to be the coolest? It is going to take a lot more work to be able to incorporate harmonic minor ideas into my playing regularly but I definitely need to do it.

Day 7: Back to C: Rather than review the keys I struggled with (which was all of them) to complete the week, I decided to wok on creating a short song in C Harmonic minor based on a bass line I played around with all week. Most of the time, in the past, when I have written music, it has been very lyrics-first folky songwriting, so working with looped drums (care of Fruity Loops), looping my bass line and putting chords and solos over it was a new experience and challenge. It was really exciting and much more difficult than I anticipated. I still don’t love the rhythm guitar part or this solo. My timing is much looser than I would like as well, but I learned a ton doing this. Here is the final(ish) product for your enjoyment(?).

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.