Author Archives: Brian Hunker
It has been a busy week here at the studio. All the students are now back from summer break and my schedule is completely full. A problem which I am always very grateful to have. And still I managed to find some time to (finally) post the 4th installment of this program on guitar technique. This weeks exercise routine combines all the skills of the previous 3 weeks and voi la: Arpeggios!
I decided to get rid of the commentary portion of these videos. While my explanations might be helpful to some people, they are perhaps equally likely to hinder others. Technique is a process of discovery, hence all the repetition. The great Mike Watt (of the great band the Minutemen) used to say, “The knowing is in the doing.” So the less time you spend scratching your head trying to understand what I am saying and the more time you spend putting your hands on the strings, the sooner you will become a better guitar player.
It will probably save us both a lot of wasted time if I simply demonstrate the exercises and limit my commentary to “Wax on. Wax off.”
So with that said, here are the links to this week’s exercise printout…
…and this weeks YouTube play-along video.
Good luck and I’ll see you next week.
Back again this week with the 3rd installment of this new program I’ve developed for teaching guitar technique. The first two exercise routines focused only on the picking hand and consisted of playing only open strings. In this 3rd installment you will focus on the most fundamentally important skill of the FRETTING hand: LANDING.
In the world of guitar teaching, the term “Landing” is not widely used. Most guitar teachers talk about developing the ability to “fret notes”, or to “stop the strings”. These are the terms that I was taught and the terms I used during my first several years as a guitar teacher. The big problem with these terms is that they direct the student’s attention to the fretboard or to the strings, when it is the fretting hand and its fingers that should be focused on.
Using the term “Landing” directs the student’s attention at the posture and movement of the left hand, particularly at the crucial instant when a finger tip makes contact with the guitar string. This is one of the most critical points in developing good technique. Students who takes the time to develop a natural sense for how to consistently and firmly land on the strings will have a rock-solid foundation on which many more important skills can quickly and easily be acquired.
Without this foundational skill, any student who tries to proceed toward learning melodies or chords, or any other skill, will soon feel frustrated – as though their fingers are uncoordinated and they themselves are untalented. The point I would like to stress here is that developing the ability to competently land on the strings is not a matter of whether or not you have talent. Just take the time to slowly and carefully repeat these simple exercises over the 7 CONSECUTIVE DAYS OF PRACTICE, and you’ll have the skill you need. When building guitar excellent technique, I like to say the recipe calls for REPETITION, ATTENTION, and TIME. The subject of “Talent” is another story for another day.
And you can also practice along with my real-time demonstration of any of these exercise routines, which can be found on my YouTube channel. Good luck with your practice and I look forward to seeing you back here again next week for the next skill in this series!
It’s Friday once again and that means its time for a NEW video on guitar technique. So far the new series, which I’ve titled “Sympathetic Technique” is going well. This week we will be looking at Skill #2 (of 30). Skill #2 involves the ability to cross from one string to the next and back with the guitar pick, all while keeping time with a slow and steady drum track.
Like last week, I have carefully designed 5 short drill exercises that isolate the technique of Crossing Strings. The plan, as always, is for you to devote just 5 minutes of your practice time to this skill EVERY DAY for seven consecutive days. You do not need to continue the 5 drill exercises from last week as last weeks skill “Timing” has been integrated into this week’s drill exercises.
You can also view a real-time demonstration of the 5 minute exercise routine on my YouTube channel. If you like, you can play along with me on YouTube for each of the 7 days.
If you have any questions, you can obviously leave me a comment here or on the YouTube channel. Good luck practicing! Can’t wait to see you back here next week for the next installment!
I guess it’s been a while since I posted on the ol’ blog. What can I say? Sometimes you gotta go away for a while. Live. Learn a bit. Then you come back with more interesting things say. I believe that’s what I’ve done.
It’s been over a year of practicing, writing (music) and teaching young guitarists since last I posted and I have learned so much in that time. The only reason I’ve really returned to the old blog is because I’ve decided to codify some of the things I’ve been working on as far as teaching guitar.
If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I’m kind of obsessed with guitar technique. It’s like my form of meditation, theres always a deeper level it seems. I’m always trying to stream line the process of acquiring, improving and maintaining guitar technique. I think this time I’ve made a big step forward.
I have compiled a list of 30 skills that a guitarist needs to hone in order to play the instrument. If you’re a beginner 30 might seem like a lot, but to anyone who has been playing guitar a little while, it can seem like the instrument demands hundreds of different skills. So many that we guitar players seldom feel like we have time to practice all these skills.
The truth is we actually DON’T have time to practice any old way if we want to become even a half-decent guitarist. So one of my main goals as a teacher is to boil down all the nonsense and come up with practice routines that deliver maximum training for the shortest amount of time invested.
It is currently my opinion, after 25 years of playing and 12 years teaching guitar, that a guitarist should only spend between 15 minutes and 1 hour on technique per day. Most of your time ought to be spent actually PLAYING MUSIC. (You do remember what MUSIC is, right?)
Without question MUSIC is the goal. But technical issues stand between us and the music and so the sooner we sort out technique, the sooner we can get on to the business of putting our heart and soul into music.
Guitar Technique does not need to be a life long pursuit. I believe, with my new method, any beginner can effectively master all the elements of solid guitar technique in 30 weeks. I have developed 30 exercises routines each 5-minutes in duration and focusing on only one skill per week. I’m thinking of calling the method “SYMPATHETIC TECHNIQUE”.
This rather long-winded post is really just my way of introducing the first skill: TIMING. Here you can download the pdf which contains the 5 ESSENTIAL DAILY EXERCISES to develop excellent timing on the guitar:
Perhaps most important is that I am producing demonstration videos of myself performing the 5 minute daily exercise routines in real time. So, if you want to, you can practice along with me (the youtube version of me) every day. Here’s a link to the first video:
Good luck with the Timing exercises and I’ll post the PDF and video of Skill #2 next Friday.
If you’ve been reading this blog a while, or if you’ve ever taken a lesson with me, you know I use metaphors like there going out of style… which is a simile. Maybe it’s actually simile that I’m using all the time. Oh well. That’s not important right now.
Right now I want to tell you how my guitar practice became a journey into the jungle. Every day I start practice here in the studio, stiff and stilted. My head is wrapped up tight with daily responsibilities, expectations, deadlines. My knees, hips and shoulders are locked up in the puritanical, eternally-anglo, defensive clench. In this position the notes and sounds within my immediate grasp are just awful. The melodies and harmonic structures are all lazy, shallow, pattern-based and trite. Lucky for me I’ve learned that there is a way out of this place.
I found out a long time ago that all the good sounds, all the exciting musical ideas, are out there: in the jungle. The guitar is such an amazing instrument capable of a seemingly infinite shades of tone, and dynamics. Just this simple arrangement of strings over frets lends itself to so many techniques: picking, strumming, legato, bending, tapping, harmonics, rasgueados – each twisting and coloring the melodic line, rhythmic pulse or harmonic structure in ways that are still yet to be discovered.
I remember when I first started venturing out into the jungle. It was a frantic mess. A blind dash into the unknown followed up by pangs of hunger to find something. Something consonant. Something cool. Something that will impress friends. Something I can sell. If I found a particularly rich patch of sonic resource, I’d get out my tape recorder or draw a little fretboard map so that I’d know where I could come back to excavate with heavy machinery. My ego fantasized about marking off some rectangular patch of sound and calling it my home. “My” sound. I looked around in awe at all this infinite potential and sighed at how long it would take me to tame it all.
But the jungle will never belong to anyone. In fact, if you hang out in the jungle long enough, you will eventually return to it in your heart. You will relax and become at home out here. Slowly that is what is happening to me. I can see that right now I’m moving from one extreme toward the other. I spend literally all my time trying to get way out there in the jungle, where I discover exotic sounds and thrilling new combinations of sounds.
I don’t try to tame anything, but I notice my head full of duality and theory still can’t help but abstract and categorize what I hear and how it is made. That may or may not change. I’m not trying to be any particular way. The ability to abstract and categorize is precisely what allowed me break out of the civilized musical world, so if anything it’s an asset. But it is a tool that I will drop on the ground immediately if it keeps me from climbing a dangerously tall tree or swimming down into the darkness of a cold lake. If it’s not there when I get back, or if one day I simply find there is no reason to pick it back up again, I suppose I’ll be done with theory on that day. But for now I still use it a lot.
The other important thing is the felling. The feeling of strength, balance and oxygen in the muscles and bones. Relaxation isn’t the right word because there is definitely time of intense exertion. But it all feels a lot more relaxed than the grinding of muscles and joints that I felt when I tried to play “properly”. The entry to this is in the breathing. Take deep diaphragm breaths. Notice how the breath can sometimes feel like it is extending all the way to the fingertips. Bend your knees and keep weight forward on your feet. Lastly, the spine has to be staked properly. Like a wild animal whose never had to sit at a desk. Never had to punch a clock. Never had to post a blog.
Even these blog posts seem as though they must be becoming more and more opaque to a general audience. I wonder if I am losing the trail of breadcrumbs back to civilization. Well, if that’s that true than I want to make sure I tell you (while I still can) that civilization’s overrated. You should get out here any way you can. It is a bright beautiful huge world that is a thousand times better than being locked up, stiff, safe and inside.
This week marks the start of a new month and so I have started a fresh new practice routine. This opportunity to reconnect with my goals and further refine my process feel like coming up for air after 30 days of keeping my head down and more-or-less slogging it out.
Some unexpected new features of this month’s routine grew quite organically a new tempo scheme I thought up last week. Basically, this month I will be doing my 2 hour technical routine at one specific tempo each day. The tempo will increase incrementally over the successive days of the month. I chose to start at 60bpm on May 1st and steadily increase the tempo by a 2bpm daily increment. On the final day of May, practice will be at 120bpm. The plan is to repeat this agin next month, but maybe start at 70 and go to 130bpm.
I am also sticking to 1/8 subdivisions for nearly all the exercises. In the 60bpm range this feels very much like playing in slow motion. It is fascinatingly counterintuitive the way that the keys to playing faster can only be found by forcing yourself to play extremely slow. As I move through the same exercises that I have done hundreds and hundreds of times this month in extreme slow motion, I can feel long held tensions breaking up and drifting away in both my hand and in my back and shoulders too. More than a few liberating moments in this weeks practice.
I plotted out the +2bpm daily tempo scheme on the May practice sheet, matching each calendar date with it’s prescribed tempo. Then I realized why stop with just tempo? I prescribed each day a tonal key center and a fretboard position to make sure that I cover all tonal exercises in all keys and that all chromatic exercises get moved to all possible hand positions. I dawned on me to do this when I noticed that without a prescribed key/position plan, I tended to do all my exercises in the key of G and in first position.
I also noticed the potential to create an unwanted correlation between tempo and position if I just moved up one position every day. That would result in me practicing lower positions at lower tempi and vice versa. So instead I moved the positions around in 5ths so it went something like 3rd-10th-5th-12th-7th… etc. This correlated with the daily key chosen.
In other news, we are nearing the first ever Gables Guitar Recital in about 10 days. I have been practicing a Tommy Emmanual piece that I hope to play at the show. It’s sounding pretty good and I’m getting through it fairly consistently in practice.
I was looking around for another new song in case I need to play 2 things when I came across the new single by Kurt Vile. It’s called “Pretty Pimpin'” and its amazing. One of the best songs I’ve heard in a while. I spent a good long time yesterday and today playing it in slow motion. I hope to have this one ready to and maybe I’ll get to play it at the show!!
The unexpected exploration of dynamics in this week’s practice sessions has helped me etch a few more spidery cracks into the great barrier surrounding technical transparency.
At first I tried to change up the dynamics with nice hair-pin style interpolation. Even in the most basic tremolo picking exercises, this proved to be at least one step too far for me. The crescendo worked more or less, though I could feel that it was rocky and uneven. The decrescendo was pretty much non-existent. My attacks just went from hard to almost silent. To put it another way, I noticed that I was not able to go from f to mf. I believe the difficulty was that the way I was going about producing a f picking attack was by pulling up tension in my right hand/wrist muscles. I suspected that this method of tension-based f attack might be altogether wrong. While it is relatively easy to modulate the increase of tension in tremolo, it seemed hard (perhaps not practical) to train the right hand to gradually release tension.
It also occurred to me that, regardless of why I couldn’t produce smooth dynamic ramps in my tremolo, I should step back and try something one-step simpler. Instead of trying to ramp from pp to ff, I just tried to ramp back and forth between pp and p, holding the fairly energetic tempo of the tremolo constant.
One indelible hallmark of novice players is how their expression suffers from a link between speed and volume. It makes sense that this would happen when I’m trying to play faster than I truly can. Dynamic control is the canary that dies in the coal mine long before rhythmic accuracy begins to break down.
When I look closely at the physical relationship between speed and dynamics on the guitar its obvious that as we speed up, the pick approaches the string with greater momentum then when we are playing slowly. To play softer dynamic levels necessarily requires that this momentum dissipate before the pick (or finger) actually strikes the string. Otherwise all the momentum needed to pick fast will be transferred to the string and the sound will be a louder dynamic. Specifically what is required to play fast yet soft is 1.) an implicit understanding of how to dissipate this momentum, AND (at least initially) 2.) a little more time to anticipate this dynamic control. In other words, you have to arrive at the string just a tiny fraction of a second sooner in order to play fast and soft.
Once again the solution is to slow down the practice tempo. Using rhythmic accuracy as the parameter of how fast you can pick is misleading and can foster a technique that is tense and dynamically flat. The breakdown of full dynamic control is the true measure of how fast a player can pick. In order to improve comfort, expression, accuracy, and maybe even top speed, I need to find the lower bpm level at which the dynamic control starts to break down and work there.
To say this very simply, I am trying to execute all technical exercises with picking/strumming/rasguados/etc that are fast but keep the dynamic level pp. It seems that it is fairly easy to raise the dynamic level for any tempo for which I can comfortable play pp.
So that is what I am going to keep in mind as this 4th month of 2016 draws to a close and I revise my practice routine for May. It is one thing to intellectualize what practicing one way or another might do. But the proof as to whether you’re on the right track is in that feeling you get when you breakthrough some physical barrier and convert all this intellectual BS into a primal gesture. These exhilaratingly visceral moments hint that the barrier of technical development is really weak and can be shattered leaving a clear channel to whatever is on the other side.
Today’s practice was dominated by these thoughts about dynamics:
Dynamic control (along with subtleties of rhythmic timing) is among the highest levels of refinement we concern ourselves with in terms of pure technique. To interpret a series of discrete notes with rhythmic and/or dynamic intelligence allows us to bind them together into something phenomenologically different: the melodic line. The notes themselves are like strands of amino acid floating lifeless in the primordial oceans. The melodic line created once the notes are interpreted is alive.
Rhythm continues to hold an ever more enduring place in western musical culture. Infectious rhythms of remarkable complexity have swept across the globe with the undeniable influence and ease of the wind itself. From origins in Africa and Southeast Asia over to Europe and the Americas, musicians have for centuries been engaged an ongoing rhythmic dialogue that has resulted in a breathtaking plurality of counts, dances, phases and beats.
Dynamics, on the other hand, seem to be suffering the opposite fate. Dynamics seem to be suffocating in music culture. What was once an gentle gradient from pianissimo to fortissimo has been increasingly downsampled to fewer and fever layers of subtlety. When popular music conquered the musical world of the twentieth century we were introduced to the regime of the “quiet” verse which sets up the “loud” chorus. Then the digital audio revolution came along and introduced more and more dynamic compression in post production of recorded music. The result was music had a loud verse and I loud chorus. When I listen to music being produced now, it is startling how the dynamic scale has essentially become binary. Popular music today can sometimes sound like you are hearing a Morse code consisting of every sound in the world flashing alternately against rhythmic inserts of silence.
I’m trying really hard not have this post veer into the realm of music criticism. I really don’t care who is making what or why (at least I don’t care anymore ;) ). I just think that it is interesting to realize that I grew up in the middle of this trend where the 2 most important threads of musical intelligence began to follow wildly opposite paths. Rhythm went headlong down the path of development and dynamics is being choked out of existence.
I only point out these apparent cultural trends because of how the musical cultures in which we live and work influences how we direct our attention. The development of a musician’s rhythmic intelligence is in 2016 a given. Intelligent rhythms are in the air everywhere now. I have noted throughout my own musical development a certain natural ease to interpret the rhythmic domain, and not just in terms of beats and subdivisions, but also swing and subtle placement of attack in and around the beat. That rhythmic sense is built into a cultural language in which we are all fluent.
Dynamic subtlety (like subjectivity in our narrative arts or nuance in our politics) is not part of our cultural language. The extent to which musicians in 2016 wish to develop and employ a sense of dynamic range in our work, is the extent to witch we operate outside the influence of contemporary music culture. Without this realization we can easily discount, if not entirely overlook this entire domain of musical intelligibility.
Like some examples of early music devoid of rhythm, music which employs only a binary sense of dynamics is not fully alive. In my next revision of the practice plan I will weave dynamics into the exercise routine.
Some days my morning practice sessions are full of amazing discoveries and staggering breakthroughs that make me really excited to be doing the kind of work I’m doing. The rewards are so satisfying that most days I jump out of bed before dawn and can’t wait to get into it.
Today is NOT one of those days. Don’t get me wrong. I still got up. I got straight to work. But after a few minutes I could tell it just wasn’t happening. I had trouble staying focused. My hands were all over the place. Instead of thinking about how I could add more challenges or musicality to the exercises, I was watching the clock and basically dragged my guitar over the finish line.
Inevitably, and often without warning, these “off” days happen. These are the days where good musicianship is truly earned. If making music was all non-stop fun and excitement, our music would be weak and shallow. Even though a great many people want the ability to make music, days like today are a sort of natural barrier that restrict entry even to some truly passionate people. The feeling you get after a bad performance or even a bad day of practice (where you feel like your actually getting worse) certainly makes me want to quit, and many people do just that. That’s why it’s important to make long term commitments. I don’t feel good about how today went, but I’m certainly not going anywhere because I’m committed to sticking this out. I just have to wait until tomorrow.
I think it’s important to hold yourself to a high standard if you want to see good results in your work. But it’s also important to give yourself a reasonable break once in a while. I mean, it’s not like I’m taking the day off or anything. I still came in and put my hours in. Hopefully that still counts for something. Luckily for me, days like today are infrequent.
I say that “off” days show up with no warning, but today kind of makes sense. This is the end of a long week at the end of a long month. I’ve been doing the exact same practice routine for the past 22 days in row, so it’s feeling pretty stale and needs to be revised. Even the weather outside is cloudy and kind of gross. Also, I should step back and realize that I’m coming off a few weeks in a row of tremendous progress that has spoiled my expectations to the point where a normal day seems dull and difficult.
There also are a few external things that I know I should be doing better to ward off days like today. I think of them as the big 3: eating, sleeping and exercising. I’m currently not doing any of them as well as I have in the past. Last night I stayed up too late watching “Generation Kill” so I didn’t get enough sleep. Yesterday I started the day by eating a spaghetti burrito at 5:30am (thank god no one reads this blog), so yeah nutritionally I must be in a pretty bad place right now. I think I did the elliptical on Monday or Tuesday for like 15 minutes and that was my big push to get back on top after several weeks of no exercise. Really firing on one cylinder (the music cylinder) is not sustainable.
Perhaps the last thing I need to do better is simply not dwell on this kind of negative stuff. Maybe even choosing to write this post wasn’t such a good idea. Well, it’s not like any other cool ideas came to me today, it was either this or no blog post at all. Anyway it’s written now so I can move on with the rest of today and hopefully come in tomorrow swinging harder than ever!
When I first started playing guitar I had no interest in doing technical exercises. As cheesy as it sounds, I just wanted to rock. I wanted to be loud, fast, and to be both in and very much out of control. I quickly learned that playing guitar required some amount of disciplined practice. But just how much technique is needed to clear a wide enough channel of self expression for our ideas is for each of us a very personal matter. Even within my own pursuit it feels like a moving target. Then again, I’m hardly the same person I was when I first pickup up a guitar 20 years ago.
Since those early days I have taken several swipes at getting better. Over the past two decades I can trace the almost planetary orbits that seem to be bringing me back around to the same grindstone of technical practice. I work toward some particular goal for a few weeks, months, or as long as I can keep the discipline together before the need to compose, write, record, sing, or bang the drums becomes so great it ultimately snaps my resolve and I go sailing off into a creative bender. I abandon practice and play only whatever comes out. I try to record these ideas and shape them into songs as gently as possible, having leaned the hard way how they are so easily crushed.
Eventually though, as this emerging pattern suggests, I bottom out. I come out of the creative fever feeling like I’ve done all I know how to do. I listen back to the cassettes, CDRs, MP3s, Voice Notes and I’m generally satisfied by the progress. Then, after a few days I decide (as I always do) that what I’ve made is still incomplete. It needs to be more deliberate. It needs to be less derivative. It needs to be more honest. It needs to be more worth people’s time.
So I hit pause on the creative spaceship and beam back down to the studio full of scales, arpeggios, foot stools and metronomes.
To someone on the outside this constant back and forth between practice and production might seem like a rut. But I’ve noticed that each time I come back it is with a greater wealth of accumulated experience both technical and creative. I’m returning to the same place. I’m doing the same kind of activities, but the goal is better defined and the path is becoming more clear. To me this path is not a rut. It is a spiral. And it can keep going this way forever for all I care because I enjoy both sides of the work. Just when you can’t stand another day of broiling summer, it’s fall to the rescue.
Hmmm… How did we get here? I really thought this blog post was going to be about how I am doing a really good job of tracking BPMs in my practice routine. After several years of trying to more faithfully incorporate metronomic discipline in less and less half-assy ways, I’ve finally resolved to take the scenic route to the top of the BPM mountain. I’ve gone back to using a single BPM for my practice routine which I have been increasing by 1 tick each day.
I started at 75BPM and my plan is to get to 300 by the end of the year. Today I reached 90 and I’ve been able to keep up all the exercises steady and relaxed down to the 1/16 note subdivision. Nearly all of them I can also do T/16 and some (like basic tremolo) I can still do 1/32 with no tension. I am hoping that raising the BPM by only one click per day will be gradual enough to hang on to at least 1/16 rhythms up to 300. Time will tell.
Even though the destination of 300BPM is a long way off, I am learning things at every BPM along the way. I’m thinking of it like crossing a continent on foot. Along the way I am mapping every tree, hill, river, and any other detail that catches my ear. I suspect that the indescribable sum of all these little details found in the low lying tempi has something to with a players ability to reach the highest peaks of speed.
So that’s interesting, right? That’s worth reading, isn’t it? I feel the need to include just one more thing that isn’t really interesting: I need to remember not to eat before practice. Every time I do I regret it. Not worth a whole dedicating a whole post to that, but it’s worth noting. Coffee is ok though.