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Day 118 : Little Earthquakes

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.

-BREAKTHROUGH-

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.

Another Month of Focused Practice

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.

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Bad Behavior ...and how to get back on track

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.
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Some Thoughts on Scales

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:
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The Pendulum Principle

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.

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Combine and Conquer

Because I can’t afford to waste my valuable practice time, I always try to make sure that whatever routines I am practicing incorporate three important things: technique, theory, and musicality. Experienced guitarists need to integrate more and more topics into each part of their work. After all there are only so many hours in the day. In order to advance as a musician beyond a certain point, efficiency becomes imperative.

Until recently, I had been in the habit of dividing up my practice time into separate sections that focused on technique, theory and musicality separately. My practice worked like high school: You go to history class. The bell rings. You stop learning history and start learning math. I would work on exercises that focused only on technique (like chromatic scales or picking drills). Then I would spend time practicing in a way that was purely theoretical (like scales and arpeggios). Then I would work on phrasing, improvisation or learn songs, all of which sharpened my sense of musicality. This is the segmented approach I was taught, and it worked great for me for many years.

However, I gradually started to find (or in some cases invent) exercises that allowed me to combine technique, theory, and musicality. I found that these multidisciplinary exercises reinforced multiple skills simultaneously and lead to more practical improvements in my playing.

Once I started examining exercises to see each one faired at incorporating those 3 important topics, it wasn’t too difficult see what was lacking and how I could improve the exercise to be more balanced. Most often I found the exercises I was doing to be lacking in musicality. This is no big surprise as I’ve always found exercises to be inherently non-musical. That is the best and the worst thing about them. Exercises are easier to play than music, but nobody wants to listen to exercises.

I began to reevaluate all my technical exercises and made changes to incorporate more musicality. I found that the changes I was making always required the application of music theory. So that’s how I figured out how to incorporate all three disciplines. If your practice consists of technical exercises which are guided by theoretical principles toward a musical goal, you are making the best use of your time.

Let me give you one example of an exercise that I came up which I hope can illustrate what I am trying to say. I created this technical exercise starting backward from the musical idea of cadences. I was thinking about how often authentic cadences (V-V7-I) occur in actual music and I wondered if I could use theory to help me design and exercise drill that would cover all the possible cadence voicings on the guitar fretboard. I narrowed the scope from all the possbile V-V7-I combinations to all the V-V7-I combinations within a single position. The answer I came up with was exactly 5 cadence voicings:

1. *E-E7-A
2. A-A7-D
3. D-D7-G
4. G-G7-C
5. C-C7-F*

*The ‘F’ voicing is identical to the ‘E’ voicing on guitar: 6th string root, followed by a 5th, octave, 3rd, 5th, and double octave on the 1st string.

Having found a satisfactory theoretical answer to this musical question, all I needed was to incorporate it all into a technical drill. In this case the technical drill practically presented itself. As you can see above the 5 cadences all sort of chain together: E-E7-A, A-A7-D, D-D7-G etc. The cadence that starts on C does not circle back around to E, but brings us to F which is an E voicing transposed up one semitone. So you can start the cycle over again from F and use exactly the same left hand voicings just each cadence will be moved up 1 fret. This creates a perfect cadential drill that slowly snakes its way up the fretboard.

You can also make a lot of highly musical variations on this exercise. I started off by playing these voicings as full block chords. Then as minimal triads in various inversions. I then went on to practice this cycle as arpeggios. I found that each technical variation strengthens a different side of the exercises inherent musicality. One final variation I am trying now is to improvise melodic motifs which adhere to the underlying cadences and then transpose the phrases up the neck through the 5 prescribed voicings. As a result I have seen improvement to my choices on the fretboard and my ear for hearing cadential material in all keys.

Last thing I want to mention is that all these came from ONE part of ONE musical idea. We didn’t even cover all types of cadences. I have tried the same exercise with ii-V7-I cadences, secondary dominants and minor cadences. I am sure that IV-I cadences would be equally illuminating and beneficial to practice since they would go in the opposite direction on the fretboard. Well, there is always something else to try tomorrow I suppose!

Female Rock Icons

Over the past few months Gables Guitar Studio has seen an increase in the number of young students interested in playing rock music. I don’t know what it is about this current group of middle-schoolers. They really have this incredible curiosity about rock music, heavy stuff in particular.

I’ve been trying to do my part to help introduce the broad spectrum of rock recordings to some of my students. The days of mix-tapes or even mix-CDs are long gone. I really don’t think there is anything left that I can physically hand them and say, “Hey, check this out!” I’ve started using Spotify playlists to bring certain artists and songs to the students’ attention. It’s not ideal. Students have to sign up to use Spotify if they want to listen to the playlists on their own devices. Also, some key artists and songs aren’t on Spotify. But it works pretty well in the sense that students who have Spotify can access the music easily.

I put together this Spotify playlist that featuring 50 of the Greatest Female Rock Icons:

It was such a fun and exciting experience to go back through the decades of rock music and listen to all these amazing songs again. I tried to limit my selections to one song per artists which was really hard to do in almost every case. So please share this playlist with the young rocker in your life. As a musician who happens to be male, I can tell you ALL that these women have artistically impacted me as powerfully as any of their male counterparts. That is why I am so adamant about sharing their work with the next generation.

Special thanks to Paola for helping me compile this list, which is in no way definitive. In fact, I am 100% positive that I have omitted some truly legendary artists. Do me a favor and tell me all about it in the comments section. I’ll get things started: Joan Jett! The bulk of her best work, including the undeniable anthem “I Love Rock and Roll”, is not on available on Spotify at the present time.

Bad Music for Good People

Here’s a crazy thought that came to me on my way into the studio this morning: We could all benefit by listening (and I mean actively listening) to more BAD music. Gentlemen, you may now faint. Ladies, you may now begin fist fighting each other… Ok. Now that the initial shock is out of your system, you will allow me to explain.

The truth is there is no such thing is BAD music. What one person thinks is brilliant, or relevant, or artistic, another person thinks is wet garbage. Opinions about music (and possibly everything else) are just ways to reflect who we are. The “I” in the phrase “I don’t like THIS” is really what we are trying to call attention to and usually elevate above the “THIS”, which is sort of irrelevant.

The main reason our opinions so often have so little to do with the music the opinion is supposed to be ABOUT, is because we simply don’t listen to BAD music. Even when we think we have listened to something, we don’t take into account the world of prejudice that is in full effect before Grandma drops the needle – your Brother pops open the jewel case – your nephew clicks the triangle – your friend who lives in Brooklyn drops the needle – or your friend who lives in Portland begins turning some sort of crank.

We often know, or think we know, what we are about to hear before we hear it. If we think we aren’t going to like it we can completely shut down without even knowing it, and thus never really hear the thing which we then go on to tell anyone who will listen, “totally sucks”. Music is more than just what the artist has done. It is fitting that we already refer to these as PIECES of music. Music in the broader sense is the reaction for which pieces of music are the potential catalysts. All pieces of music can work in this way, can create a MUSICAL REACTION, if the listener knows how to use them.

This is why we have to go out and listen to BAD music. I can’t tell you how to appreciate the Shins – Yo Matty B Raps – Muddy Waters – Skrillex – Culture Club – Duke Ellington – Bach – Metallica – Arthur Russell – Melt Banana – XTC – etc – mainly because that would take forever and I don’t have time for that. **BTW All of those artists I just listed are ones that people have told me, “totally suck”… except Bach. I think everyone just kind of gets Bach. Shrug. But to appreciate anything else you have to do the work. You have to assimilate it in your own unique way. Or don’t. Be miserable. I’m just trying to help you.

Anyway, the reason I wanted to write this post was really to encourage musicians to listen to BAD music. Even if you are trying to listen as actively and objectively as you can and its just a matter of taste, seek out and listen to stuff you do not like. If you want to be creative you can’t afford to become mired in your own stylistic bubble. Think of it this way, you will develop a better appreciation for the music that you do like by studying music that has NONE of those elements. There are even totally new elements about the music that you like which you will only become aware of by identifying their absence in the music you don’t like.

Last thing I will say about this is that I have observed in myself over the years that there is a certain kind of neuroses at play when I experience a strong negative reaction to a piece of music. This reaction happens because there is more to ourselves and our personalities than we are presently aware. BAD music resonates with us at some point beyond our self image, and that can be truly unsettling. We call it BAD music because, however much we like or dislike ourselves, we all have a certain aversion to change and upheaval which BAD music demands from us. BAD music speaks not to who we are now but to who we will become if we allow ourselves to listen to it. That is why we have to seek it out and try to understand it.

OK. Next time I will write about picks or strings or something. I promise.

Tuning Your Guitar : A Closer Look

First I should say that this blog post is NOT going to be a basic tutorial on guitar tuning. There are hundreds of websites out there that can show you how to tune your guitar strings to EADGBE. What I want to do today is address some of the finer points involved in tuning the guitar.

Nearly all of my students, somewhere between a year to year-and-half into their guitar lessons, start to report having a certain difficulty with tuning their guitar. It isn’t that their guitars are suddenly not staying in tune or that their electronic tuners need calibration. What is happening is that after about a year of playing, their ears begin to really notice (and are bothered by) slightly out of tune harmonies.

The complaint is always that the student is fingering something very simple, usually an open C or open E chord, and the chord just sounds sour or “off”. And when they play it for me, it certainly is. I used to try and get students to correct this problem much earlier in the learning process. But there is just so much to grasp in the first year of lessons, and let’s face it you are going to sound bad in the beginning for a variety of reasons. Fine tuning your guitar isn’t going to make a difference until your ears are capable of understanding what you are hearing; which is precisely when you will begin to notice this problem.

I first encountered this problem years ago. I found it particularly baffling that I could tune my guitar’s open strings using an electronic tuner, play and open E chord that sounded perfect, but then my open C sounded way out. Specifically the problem with the C chord was beats in the perfect fourth interval between the 3rd string G and 2nd string C. I tried tuning the 3rd string upward to eliminate the beats (which make the C chord sound perfect) only to find that the problem of beats had now shifted to the open E chord: between the 3rd string G# and second string B (what should be a minor third harmony).

I found out much later on that this problem has to do with the difference between the something called “just intonation” and the system of “equal temperament” which western music has adopted in order to make fixed pitch instruments (including the fretted guitar) equally playable in all 12 keys.

The issues arising from equal tempered tuning and its effect on intervals and key centers is fascinating but a bit to DEEP for me to get into right now. If you really want to understand how equal tempered tuning effects the intervals of the guitar you should start reading up on the overtone series and the history of equal tempered tuning. Be patient as this subject is very hard to understand. It took me a few years even to begin to wrap my brain around it. If you have specific questions on this subject, send them to me in an email and I’ll do my best to explain. Or, if you’re already one of my students, just bring it up in your next guitar class.

Assuming that most of you are NOT interested in going deep into equal temperament, and would just like to fix the problem and have your chords sounding nice an pretty. You are in luck. There is a very practical solution to this problem. There are actually several, but I’ll just tell you the one that I use most often.

I just explain to you how I tune my guitar and then you can try it and see if it helps you.

1.) Tune all open strings by one of the normal methods. Tuning the open strings to EADGBE using an electronic tuner is the fastest. You can also tune the open strings by ear to their corresponding piano keys, or use a pitch fork or whatever.

2.) Strings 6, 5, and 4 (E-A-D) are fine so long as you really tune them right using the traditional methods. So these do not need any additional adjustment.

2.) We will make fine adjustments to strings 3, 2, and 1 (if needed) using by fretting an open D5 chord. The open D5 is made by playing the 4th string D (open), 3rd String A (2nd fret), 2nd string D (3rd fret) and 1st string A (5th fret). Low to high the notes of this chord are D-A-D-A. Check the first D against the first A (a 5th interval) then the first A against the second D (a fourth) then the A against the second A (an octave). Basically I check all the intervals against each other and balance out any beat frequencies or inconsistencies. Usually this only requires a slight adjustment of the 3rd string to get all 4 stings resonating with perfect clarity. Whatever you do don’t adjust the open 4th string. That should be the the reference for the other 3 fretted strings.

After you’ve do this fine tuning carefully, go back and try the open E and open C chords. You should find that both sound great. In truth their upper intervals are slightly degraded and if you listen real close you might here a very slow *wow* in the C chord, but it is certainly not enough to sour the harmony.

I also use this method to check my guitar in between songs during a performance if I think the 3rd or 2nd strings may have slipped out of tune due to bending, temperature change or some other fluke. In truth it is probably impossible to keep your guitar in tune 100% of the time. But if you master little tuning tricks like these you can identify tuning problems and resolve them immediately; and as a result you guitar will always sound great!

The Importance of Active Listening In 2015

One really important part of becoming a good musician is listening to music. While this may seem very obvious, what many musicians don’t realize is that not all kinds of listening are equal. The better you develop your listening skills the more you will appreciate, understand and ultimately absorb musical ideas which can further your own playing ability as well as your musical creativity.

I think my listening skills were at their best when I was a teenager. I used to just sit in a room for hours, staring at the ceiling, listening to CDs or records or (gasp) FM radio. I wasn’t also browsing the internet (there was no such thing). I wasn’t looking at my phone (it was attached to the wall in my parent’s kitchen). I’m not trying to come off like some old grouch who thinks “those were the days”. But I am saying that I recognize how easy it is to become accustomed to browsing several different kinds of media simultaneously. It takes a little extra focus and commitment now to say, “OK. I’m just going to sit here and really listen to this album.”

What I used to do as a teenager (really getting deep into a song or album) is what I now have seen others refer to as ACTIVE LISTENING. Basically when you are actively listening, you devote your full attention to what you are hearing. Since you aren’t looking at any visual stimuli, you may naturally visualize what the lyrics are about, or maybe you visualize the artists playing their instruments. Particularly with instrumental music the music may evoke all sorts of day dreams straight from your own imagination.

The main thing is that when you are actively listening your mind remains actively engaged in the music 100%. You don’t start thinking about your bills, or that you need to reply to some email, or anything like that. I think this maybe the reason why I can never get back to height of my teenage listening skills. Adults simply face so many more mental distractions. I got worries now, man!

When I think about all the ways in which listening to music has changed over the last few decades, I wonder if today’s teenagers are having a more passive listening experience. For one thing there is more music. So much more music, and it is everywhere. When I was young good music was scarce. So much so that we referred to it as “underground” music. You had to dig it up. Then, even if you found it, you also had to buy it. So even when I was lucky enough to find a store that carried cool albums I could only afford maybe one new album every month. In those days it was you and 12 tracks for like 30 days. So even if they weren’t that good you’d actively listen to ALL of them many times over.

Contrast this with today’s listening environment. It is ceaseless avalanche of digitized musical masterpieces. In one way this is everything music lovers always wanted. But while the musical abundance is suddenly infinite, our time to listen and enjoy it is more scarce than ever. Naturally this results in a situation where we spend maybe 30 seconds skimming and browsing through an artists ENTIRE LIFE’s WORK, passively waiting for something to jump out and grab our attention. If nothing does, we declare this artist a dud. We then take 1 more second to form a lasting opinion about how we don’t like that artist and proceed to click on the next one. At this rate you can form such superficial opinions about the entire genres of music is a single afternoon. This is passive listening at its worst.

Even when it’s not quite that superficial, I have made it a point to try to spend time with albums or artists’ catalogues the way I used to when I was younger. There is no substitute for listening to a track dozens of times. It is very surprising what you might hear the 12th time that you didn’t hear the first 11 times.

Last thing I’ll say on this topic right now is that NONE of my all-time-favorite records jumped out and grabbed me when I first heard them. In fact the experience was quite the opposite. Almost all my favorite records were ones that I initially found to be confusing, disappointing, obnoxious, boring, or scary. Then as I got to know those records, I was forced to grow and understand them. It is very important to remember that some of there very best music out there is meant not to please you, but to change you. So either chose to go deep, or browse at your own risk.