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Today in practice it again occurred to me the importance of dealing with tension. I have noticed when I struggle (and when I see my guitar students struggle), the effects are all physical: Faces scrunch up. Shoulders pull up closer to the ears. Breathing stops. Most importantly the hands want to close and we have to fight these involuntary muscle contractions in oder to get the hands and fingers to do what is needed to play guitar. This involuntary muscle tension is often called “sympathetic tension” and it is a well known enemy to good guitar playing. I’ve experienced many times that so much of learning to play music is learning to relax these unnecessary muscles and basically get out of my own way.
The intuitive response to tension is to fight it on a physical level. But often we can’t directly command these spastic muscles to relax. Muscles we can’t allow to flex or extend seem tied to the muscles we need to flex or extend. But today it occurred to me that it is critically important to identify the source of this tension, which is not physical at all. In almost all the cases I can think of, unwanted MUSCLE tension is the direct result of unnecessary MENTAL tension.
When I am using unnecessary muscle tension I’ve noticed it is because I don’t exactly understand the thing that I am trying to do. I obviously have a pretty good idea what I’m trying to do, but the extent to which that understanding is incomplete is the extent to which attempting to play the part will result in mental tension. If I can’t quite picture in my mind all the events that need to occur and/or the precise timing when these things need to happen, the hand will “try” to do it for me. The result of the hands trying on their own (without good instructions from the brain), is always excess tension. And there is the link between mental tension and physical tension.
This is particularly evident when it comes to taking things up to higher speeds. I simply can’t rely on my hands to show me how its going to sound. For more complex musical structures and high speeds, I am finding that I have to very clearly hear it in my mind and visualize how the hands feel playing it before I can play it IRL.
What’s tricky is that we can get away with a certain amount of tension. That is to say there is a non-zero threshold which, so long as we don’t exceed it, we can play a part or a song and not make mistakes. As tensions (both mental and muscular) accumulate they may eventually exceed this somewhat intangible threshold and as a result we crash and burn.
The upshot from all this is that 99.99% of any guitarists limitation are all mental (and not physical). It really is a case of mind over matter. This realization strengthens the argument for more ear training and deeper study of music theory. The sharper and more effective a musician’s mental toolset is the more mental room she will have below that crash and burn threshold. The easier and more quickly we can fully realize complex musical structures mentally, the sooner we can play them.
Maybe a specific example would help illustrate what I’m trying to say here. This idea occurred to me today while I was trying to work on combining my tremolo picking with left hand glissandos. You hear this technique a lot in the intro to surf songs. I had been hunting around trying to get this technique to work at high speeds for a long time and today it finally clicked. What made the difference was a bit of mental clarity.
I noticed that a lot of guitar glissandos tend to have a range of exactly one octave. Think about how you start at the 12 fret and glide down in tremolo to the open string. But when I would simply trem-pick as fast as possible and then glide down the result never sound smooth. It seemed like too often my picking tended to occur when my finger was over a fret rather than behind a fret where a good note could be produced. But how could I keep track of the instantaneous position of my left hand for every note of this chromatic descent?? Then I started to think about rhythmic subdivision. Ok 12 frets in an octave. What rhythmic subdivisions could I trem-pick that would neatly multiply up to 12? I found that I could easily account for two groups of 6 when employing T/16 trem-picking.
As soon as I saw the glissando as 2 beats of T/16 tremolo the cloud of uncertainty surrounding these highspeed glissandos suddenly lifted and I immediately began to articulate every note along the neck slide. I was also able to stick the landing on the open string on a strong beat. I hadn’t even realized how critically important that clean finish was to produce a convincing glissando. Once I had automated the rhythmic subdivisions, I was able to apply the mental savings to higher order ideas. I found that I was able to think about comfortably accelerating the slide on the way down to compensate for the incrementally wider frets at the low end of the neck.
Even now I struggle to explain how powerfully efficient the effect of all this is. It’s one of those picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words kind of things. A technical revelation like this is worth a 1000 blog posts. But the gist is that greater mental clarity, aided by theoretical understanding, reduced mental tension and resulted in an easier and more accurate physical articulation on the guitar.
As a final thought, I can’t deny the argument that some tension may actually be a good thing. When I think of my musical heroes (Kurt Cobain, Freddy King, Robert Fripp, Johnny Greenwood, even Hendrix) most were not paragons of carefully honed technique. At least not on the surface. Some of that struggle to get the sounds out no doubt contributes to the compelling qualities in their sound. Still, I have no interest in preserving some kind of ignorance around my work. My plan is to try as hard as I can and use every tool I can find to create new things. There is plenty of struggle in that.
As I start each morning completing these 2+ hours of technical drills, usually one or two new things occur to me. These ideas that come to the surface during practice are generally ways to perform exercises more efficiently or comfortably. Sometimes I find an aspect of the technique that I’ve overlooked or didn’t know existed, and that usually calls for the practice routine to be amended or otherwise changed. The margins of my monthly practice plans over the last 100 days have become covered with penciled-in notes and mods in my effort to capture and implement these ideas.
I have also lost several of these small revelations when I chose not to stop working to write them down. I’m sure I will find them again someday, but losing some of them also makes me realize that I should try and do a better job of keeping notes. That’s when I remembered this blog which I am so inconsistently updating. So I am going to try and record the notes of my daily practice sessions here in the blog starting……. NOW!
It is interesting that as I have been adding techniques over the past 109 days, I have also been subtracting techniques. I hesitate to allow myself to think that any aspect of my technique is beyond the benefit of daily drill exercises. The first few minutes of my routine is still essentially slow alternate picking of the open strings. It doesn’t get any more basic than that, and yet I still do it every day because I keep finding more subtle ways to do it better. However, this ongoing experiment into exhaustive technical study continues to lead me to discover ways in which two separate aspects of technique can be combined and practiced simultaneously. When this happens 2 line items on the practice sheet combine into a single line item and a sort of “subtraction” of 1 line item is achieved. These small gains in efficiency are what has allowed me to slowly add techniques to the practice plan without extending the duration of the drill exercises beyond the 2 hours I can reasonably devote to this kind of work each day.
Some of the biggest combinations came early in this year. In January I realized that I didn’t need a whole separate battery of exercises for intervals, chords, and inversions. I could simply combine the study of chord inversions with appropriate technical exercises which are often used to create them on guitar. For example, the combination of bidirectional sweep picking with 1 note per string arpeggios is one rather obvious combination. I’m continuing to find more musically elegant combinations of technical exercise with theoretical construction, many of which were not obvious to me at first. Some of the most recent include combining two handed tapping technique with linear (single string) arpeggios. I have also combined diatonic chord scales with thumb-over-the-top exercises.
When I flip back to the way I was working just 100 days ago, it makes me excited to think how different, how much more efficient my practice routine will be 100 days from now. It seem like I have found a way to work in a routine that is both highly consistent but also slowly evolving and improving itself.
This week will mark 100 days since the beginning of 2016. Perhaps 100 is just a number, but milestones are important when you are trying to reach long-term goals. On this 100-day milestone I am happy to report a perfect record of guitar practice. I have kept track to make sure that I’ve put in no less than 2 hours of highly specific drill-based practice toward my goal of developing virtuosic technique.
The result of this dedication is that my playing has never been in better shape. My ability to execute difficult musical constructs like tremolo scales and sweep arpeggios is coming along. My right hand finger independence has completely transformed. My sense of harmony and intonation has also improved tremendously. This has allowed me to pinpoint and address several intonation problems with my two main electrics (the Telecaster and the Les Paul). I recrowned all the Tele frets by hand and replaced the nut. I even filed the nut slots myself to perfect the intonation at the first fret. I was always somewhat aware that problems such as this needed to be fixed, but I guess it took hearing the same slightly sour chords over and over again, 2 hours a day (for like 73 days in a row) to force me to get my instruments into truly great shape. The Taylor has always sounded perfect.
I have also begun to change up the strings I use. Not only changing strings more frequently (nearly once a week), but also trying different brands and types. The intensity of the repetition and the breadth of the scope in my daily practice has, for maybe the first time, allowed me to make meaningful judgments as to how minor details such as string gauge, winding type, and metallic composition are affecting the way the instruments feel and sound.
I already mentioned in an earlier post the importance I have discovered in visualization and eyes-closed practice. Another interesting observation that has just started to dawn on me is the importance of constant body movement while doing the drills. I have been trying to make sure that i never lock my knees, hips or shoulders. I have been trying to keep the weight off my heels and constantly move my feet while doing the drills. This makes it nearly impossible for me to practice too fast. If I can’t find the notes while I’m dipping and swaying, it is clear that I truly can’t find those notes and need to slow down and find them. Also I think the body movement is essential to linking disparate elements of playing into a stronger, more experientially compact whole. I’m not completely sure where this is going but it seems to me that body movement increases relaxation and wards off tension and that seems to always be the neighborhood where I’m likely to run into revelation.
Lastly, and this is a BIG one, I have developed a comprehensive technical test that cross references each technique with each common subdivision of the beat (1/8, 1/16, T/8, 1/32) for a range of BPM from 60 to 280. Taking this test for the first time has allowed me to pinpoint exactly how fast I can comfortable execute each specific technique. These measurements are a real eye-opener and have informed me as to just how slowly (not how fast) I need to be practicing each technique. I also plan to take this test again, perhaps once a month so that I can get some indication of what is/isn’t improving and by how much. If I can measure specific improvements over time I can make smarter decisions about how to further refine the practice routine, extending what works and curtailing what doesn’t seem to be producing results.
Ok. So this is the end of a humorless and sort of clinical blog post. Sorry about that. But I don’t have a ton of time and saying things this way allows me to get these ideas down on record quickly, which I would rather do than simply not post at all. Still it is interesting whether or not I will be cable to access artistic freedom via advanced techniques which are acquired by really rather clinical methods. I believe that I will. Time will tell.
Well this is the last day of March 2016. Can you believe it? That’s one quarter of 2016 already in the history books. Time is flying by and you know time tends to ALWAYS be flying.
If you are working on long term goals (such as developing advanced guitar techniques) this rapid passing of time can be an unexpected boost. Like all those training montage sequences we see in movies, several months can pass by in what feels like a few days. If you’ve spent that time putting in the dedication, racking up daily completions of a well crafted practice routine, it’s astonishing how much technical skill can be developed in a period of only a few months. Without even trying you will find the rewards of good practice habits freeing up new avenues of expression and a greater feelings of strength, comfort and freedom in your guitar playing.
On the other hand, the exact opposite it also true. Months and even years can go by where you meant to do the work but didn’t. Often we then look back in these cases and think, “If only I’d put in a few minutes each day, I’d be so much farther along by now.” I’ve seen first hand both sides of this issue over the course of my own development as a guitar player and I’m constantly revisiting these experiences as a guitar instructor helping other young guitarists.
The difference between being able to leverage the passing of time to astounding effect, or having time pull the rug out from under us is really just planning. Good planning not only involves making a good plan, but even more importantly good planning relies on developing within your character the ability to stick with the plan. In the case of developing guitar technique this kind of dedication is manifest in the successful completion of a highly specific practice routine every day over a long succession of days.
If you wish you were more organized but just aren’t a very organized person, that’s ok. Most musicians and creative people struggle with organizational discipline. But I beg you to struggle. Don’t give up. Don’t feel that you are subject to whatever you current habits are. Start small and over time you will get better at organization. Believe me I was the worst. It was my desire to get better at music that forced me (in most cases kicking-and-screaming) to as they say “get my shit together”.
Check it out. I’ve posted below a picture of my monthly practice routing for March 2016. It tracks 131 daily technical exercises. That’s 4061 exercises per month! Because this printed worksheet allows me to track everything I can look back as see that I spent a little over 62 hours and I completed over 97% of the technical development work I planned to do this month.
The task now is to look over the notes I’ve made on this paper and revise my routine. Tomorrow morning I’ll start a crisp new worksheet with some 4000+ exercises to be completed in the month of April. I expect the results will be even more satisfying.
In this age, where the internet is dominated by easily digestible guitar videos, if you are actually going to put out the effort to read this guitar blog, I should do my best to keep things interesting. One sure way I know to keep things interesting is to just tell you some of my weirdest stuff. So here goes…
You know… if you like these blog articles, you should check out the Gables Guitar YouTube channel. Until recently there wasn’t too much content on there, but I am going to make more of an effort to post videos each week. I’ve already got the ball rolling with a series of videos that document a research project on an aspect of guitar playing that I have been grappling with for decades: STRINGS.
In this series of Youtube videos, I will attempt to demonstrate specifically what differences (if any) the choice of strings makes when it comes to guitar playing. With all the different brands, gauges, materials, wining types, etc. it is very hard to decide what strings are right for the job. I have played guitar for over 2 decades and I have tried a lot of different strings over the years. But while I have had a lot of… shall we say string-related-experiences, I feel that what I know about strings is hap-hazard. I feel like I’m at a place in may playing now where I know what to look for from strings and if I just take a little care to organize and document this experiment, I think it will result in some reliable insights.
The Story So Far…
So far I am one video into this project and I can already see that there probably won’t be an overall “best” type or brand of strings. My initial hypothesis is that there will be different techniques/styles for which each specific string type will perform better and others where it will prove less suited. Did I just say “hypothesis”? I better open a window. It’s getting scientific in here.
But you never know. As I look at all the strings I have already purchased for this experiment, I can’t help but wonder if one of them will just light up my life immediately… Well, I have been playing long enough to be highly skeptical of that kind of thing when it comes to gear. After all, by far the 2 most important factors when it comes to tone, intonation, and general magic are you own left and right hands.
That is part of the reason why I am excited to be doing this experiments now. I have been hitting the practice drills pretty hard as part of my new year’s resolution to pump up my technique. I have logged over 100 hours and have done at least 1 hour every day for the past 50 consecutive days. To put it in NBA Jam terms: I’ve been on-fire since January. Sometime around mid-Feb my character jumped out up from half-court, flew up out of frame and is still up there somewhere. I’m not sure when he is coming back down, but I can tell you this: he’s going to make glass-shattering dunk!!
So nothing is off the table for this experiment. I addition to exotic burnished nickel and flat wound strings (which I can’t wait to try) I will also be going back and evaluating the old cheapy-chungy $5 D’addarios I played when I was just a young punk. I need to update my impression of what they sound like in more experienced hands.
Not only this, but my practice routine in 2016 is much more comprehensive than its ever been. I am very confident that I will hear these strings from just about every possible angle because I have this written routine that explicitly makes sure I run through all the techniques and styles: sweep picking, hybrid picking, legatos, tapping, fingerstyle tremolo, frailing… I’m telling you, my practice can only be described as the sickest thing ever. — Ugh, is this how I talk now? HELP!
Anyway Even if there is no one set of magic strings that out performs all others, I expect that this experiment will provide me with more specific and reliable knowledge which I can use to chose among the different strings. I am tired of feeling uncertain as to whether I need to spend $15 on a pack of M-Steels or if I can use $5 strings and they sound just as good. I am hoping that this experiment will help get me to a place where I, to quote both Public Enemy and the Who: “Don’t Believe the hype & won’t get fooled again…YEEEAAAAOOOO!”
Don’t forget to watch part one of this video series here!
Can I be completely honest with you here?
If you want your guitar playing to improve you have to practice EVERY DAY. Over the years I have worked with hundreds of beginning guitarists and I have really come to believe there is just no way around this simple fact. Doesn’t matter if you are young, old, talented, untalented, smart, not-so-smart… Those who practice every day improve quickly. Those who don’t practice every day progress painfully slowly (if at all) and are very likely to give up their quest to become good guitarists. If you read my blog, I am sure you already know and understand this. But I thought, since this issue is so important and affects all aspiring guitarists, I thought I’d try to offer some sobering advice on this subject and perhaps a few solutions that can help you better manage your time in general so that you are able to practice more consistently.
Time sure flies. I can’t believe November is just a few days away. Even though I graduated many years ago, fall still feels a bit like back-to-school time for me. Every fall For the past several years I have enrolled in the free classical guitar study program over at Delcamp.net.
This year is no exception, except that I am getting a little bit of a late start. The 2015-2016 courses are already in full-swing. But the great thing about Delcamp is that you go at your own pace.
The Delcamp study program is really great and I recommend it to anyone who is serious about learning to play classical guitar. The course work is interesting an increases very gradually from simple exercises to more complicated and beautiful classical pieces. Also the members of the forum are all nice and very helpful.
Another amazing thing about the Delcamp forum members is that it is a truly international community of musicians. Last year I got to work with guitarists from India, China, Serbia, the UK and many other places around the world. It is inspiring to exchange musical tips and encouragement with such a diverse group.
The conditions for registration are available on the forum: http://www.classicalguitardelcamp.com/
This year I am looking forward to registering four the Level D03 courses. If you decide to sign up, let me know what level you are in and I’ll be sure to leave feedback on your videos.
Scales are a huge topic that applies not only to guitar but to all music. Like most things in guitar, getting overwhelmed by the topic of scales is practically unavoidable and may actually be the essential first step to understanding them. Trust your own ability to learn and work patiently. The huge mountain of info on scales will start to make sense EVENTUALLY, you just have to give the key concepts time to sink in a bit. …You also have to get started right away and stick with it.
I have several books and pdfs filled with hundreds of examples of scales, but most of them do a very poor job of explaining what a scale is or why we need to learn them. It is really funny how the terms these books use to describe scales are so esoteric the only people who can understand their descriptions are people who already understand what is being described! I have read many books and I wish I could tell you one that would answer all your questions about scales, but I can’t.
But maybe I can outline the key things to always remember as you are researching scales:
As a guitar teacher I get asked a lot of questions.
– What’s the proper string gauge for a Fender Telecaster?
– What’s the easiest song to learn on guitar?
– What’s the best way to learn barre chords?
While I share in my students’ quest for definite answers, to be perfectly honest the rather unhelpful answer to all the questions is “It depends.” The rest of this post may help shed some light on how to tackle these confusing sorts of questions and answers.