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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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Turn On, Tune In, and Drop C

Let’s face it. Alternate tunings are a problem that isn’t going away. We guitarists work so hard for many years to learn a vocabulary of chords, scales and arpeggios in standard tuning. We agonize over our guitar’s intonation until we get it just right. And then at a certain point we learn just how much of the standard rock canon is played in alternate tunings. Just try to play Hendrix, Van Halen, Guns N’ Roses, Weezer, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Simon and Garfunkel, Stevie Ray Vaughan, or the Rolling Stones and you will find that nearly all the songs by these great artists are in some from of alternate tuning!

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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!

Sing Sing Sing

One very common musical exercise that I have noticed all the best guitar teachers recommend is to sing what you play. A lot of instrumental players tend to think that singing is for singers and that they don’t need to work on their vocal ability. The truth is that the ability to vocalize a melody is perhaps the strongest way to internalize and therefore control the way you will ultimately make it sound on your instrument. The more you practice singing, the more clearly you will be able to imagine the sound in your mind’s ear.

Whether you are a classical guitar player looking to better understand and interpret written music, or if you are a jazz or blues player looking to develop your ability to improvise melodies, a bit of singing should absolutely be part of your daily routine. Great musical improvisors like Thelonious Monk and Jimi Hendrix had been known to hum or scat what they were playing as they were playing it. So great was their internal sense of melody (and their command of their instruments) that they could just instantly realize these melodic threads as soon as they imagined them.

As far as classical guitar goes, many popular methods stress singing, particularly in the early stages. Aaron Shearer goes so far as to insist that beginners sing every note of every etude they are given in solfege and at tempo before so much as plucking a string. I’m sure that any of my students reading this are happy that I don’t stress singing as much as Shearer did, but we can also appreciate that this kind of thorough musical rigor leads to truly outstanding results.

Obviously, even with the Shearer method, the intention is not that every guitarist needs to develop a fantastic singing voice or an enormous vocal range. You just need to develop some ability to create and control the pitch of your voice. Once you’ve got that sense of control you can practice moving up and down via half steps and whole steps. Initially this type of practice will train your ears much more than your voice, which is precisely why music teachers stress the importance of this training specifically to non-singers.

In my experience, learning to sing scales and simple melodies has done wonders for my sense of intonation. I would even go so far as to say that I barely had any sense of intonation before I started vocalizing melody (it has improved my ears THAT much). I don’t go overboard with vocal exercise. I basically try to make sure that I spend at least 15 to 20 minutes a day singing what I am playing. Initially this meant that I just played one or two notes and practiced matching them in a vocal range that was very close to my speaking voice. Once I got up to the point where I could sing a complete C scale, I simply sang along as I did my normal scale practice.

Eventually, I learned to use the Solfege syllables (Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do) so that I could keep track of the scale degrees and develop some sense of the intervals between them. After getting the hang of straight scales, I tried to sing simple arpeggios (Do-Mi-Sol-Do, Re-La-Fa-Re, etc). This improved my sense of thirds, fourths and fifths. It is also a good idea to try and play a note on your instrument and practice singing specific harmonic intervals above or below that note. You can start with 2nds, 3rds, 4ths and then eventually try to get a sense of all the intervals up to one octave. This really has helped me distinguish between intervals of chords that I am playing. It also really helps me to pin-point problems when my guitar is sounding slightly out of tune.

Currently, I am training under the fixed-Do solfege system. Which means that “Do” is only used to vocalize C natural, and therefore every major scale uses a different collection of solfege syllables. I used to use moveable Do, which is simpler to understand, but I want to see if the fixed Do can help me to hear the difference between specific tonalities. I am currently going through this obsessive phase ever since I read about the differences between “just” and “equal tempered” tunings and the smearing effect equal temperament supposedly has on certain tonalities. I want to know if I can actually perceive and appreciate these inherent tonal characters that others say exist.

So look, you don’t have to be the next Beyonce or Bublé, but you should learn to sing a bit simply because it will improve just about every aspect of your playing. Remember to keep it to just about 20 minutes a day and start very simply. If you are consistent you should experience a tremendous boost to your ear training in 2 to 4 weeks.

Learning Guitar Exercises vs. Learning Guitar Songs

One question I ask all of my beginning guitar students is, “What made you decide to learn guitar?” Over the years I have noticed that the responses to this question reveal a few common goals we all share when it comes to learning to play guitar.

I have had singers come in for guitar classes wanting to learn to play guitar while they sing. I have taught guitar to some very creative people whose goals are to write original music or just experiment with harmony and other guitar sounds. While these are excellent goals, by far the most common reason people come in for guitar classes is that they simply want to learn to play songs. Oddly enough, while this most common goal seems like it would be the least ambitious, it is actually the hardest to achieve.

In many ways it is easier to write your own songs than it is to play someone else’s song. Or perhaps I should say that to write your own song, all you need is a little creativity. Whatever you create (good or bad) can never be wrong. If you make it up, then that’s just how it goes. But to play someone else’s song, you need information, focus, patience, and discipline. There is always some room for artistic interpretation, but in a lot of ways if you are not careful you can indeed get it wrong quite easily.

Guitar is a difficult instrument to play well, especially during the first year or two. There are many techniques and peculiar coordinations that need to be mastered even to play basic melodies like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. For this reason, many of us guitar teachers encourage our students to practice exercises.

Logically speaking, it seems the best way to learn guitar would be to learn techniques via exercises and then learn to play songs which consist only of techniques you have already worked out in the exercises. This is how many method books and beginner guitar courses are structured. As far as teachers go, I find that I am in the camp which believes that spending the majority of your practice time practicing technical exercises, or etudes, is a super fast track to playing real music with ease. The problem with this ideal situation is that music itself is never this logical. Real music almost always contains a diverse collection of technical quirks that frustrate beginners. This makes it hard to introduce students to the real music which they really want to play because to adequately prepare them for even simple blues songs or punk riffs would take 6 months to a year of exercises. Almost nobody who wants it badly enough has this much patience, and nobody who has this much patience wants it badly enough.

So we tell our students to just be patient, do more exercises, and then eventually they’ll be able to play that difficult part and finally complete a few of these songs. This is true, and if they hang in there they will get it. But this is where many guitar students become frustrated and fall off. If they can’t point to a list of real musical songs they can play completely front to back in the first year or two, they may decide to give up. Many teachers simply resign themselves to accepting this as a fact of reality. Like baby sea turtles hatching on the beach. Sadly not all these beginner guitarists are going to make it to the water. But if we, the guitar teachers just accept that, we aren’t really doing our job which is to TRY REALLY HARD to get all these baby turtles into the water. Part of that means not just accepting the current teaching processes and the types of students for which they are effective. We have to actively working to improve the process or find new alternative processes to serve the students who are struggling.

I believe that there exists a learning path from absolute beginner to great guitarist that consists only of learning songs. I am constantly trying to find the right order in which to introduce songs to beginners so that they can completely learn the material in a reasonable amount of time. The order is the whole key to learning by playing songs. You have to chain one song to the next at just the right level of difficulty to create a seamless or at least gradual enough progression. Generally speaking, I think 2 to 4 weeks is a reasonable amount of time to fully learn each new song. If it drags on longer than that, the student is either not practicing effectively, or the song is not at the appropriate difficulty level.

I think that the learning by songs method is fascinating. But, while there are hundreds of method books which teach exercises and etudes as a pretext to songs, there seems to be little in terms of resources that explain what songs a student should learn first and then how these would progress in a logical or gradual manner. Still I will continue to develop my own method of teaching in the hope that one day I might find the right order in which to teach songs so that students can progress directly from song to song, without the need to resort to exercises.

Do I need to Learn Scales to Learn Guitar?

This is just a quick post that will hopefully answer a question that I get asked all the time. The short answer is: “Yes.” A slightly longer answer would be: “Yes. Definitely.”

Rather than try to explain to you why you need to learn scales, I thought I might just talk about the importance of having a positive approach to learning. The value of some things, like learning scales (or learning guitar for that matter) may only become apparent AFTER you have learned them. Any attempt I make to explain why you should learn scales, will probably only make sense to musicians who have already studied scales.

To the beginner or novice I would encourage you to make a choice to truly learn guitar. If you are fortunate enough to be taking guitar classes, then don’t leave anything off the table: Learn scales. Learn to read music. Learn how train your ears and your voice. Learn how to train the finer muscle movements of the hand. Learn music theory. Learn visualization techniques. Learn how to hear music in your mind’s ear. Learn to play with a pick. Learn to play with your fingers. Etc…

Too often I meet beginners who are in such a hurry to learn guitar. As if learning guitar is a phase that can be completed, and shouldn’t actually take that long. Typically a lot of beginners feel that anything other than learning the one or two songs they want to learn is a waste of time. This belief only serves to narrow their focus to a point that it actually prevents them from successfully learning any songs. Learning scales, theory, and other forms of training are in fact brilliant shortcuts that help musicians acquire amazing techniques and other skills that help us memorize lots of musical material with minimal effort in (you guessed it) a reasonable amount of time.

By far the best thing you can do is adopt a positive attitude toward learning. Be open to all aspects of music. You don’t have to play scales up and down the neck like a super shredder. For most musicians, that is not what guitar playing is about. But you won’t get very far if you one foot out the door. Please, come all the way in. Have a seat. Relax and let’s learn what guitar is all about.

Classical Guitar Open-Mic UPDATE

In a previous post I talked about the Florida Guitar Foundation and their monthly Classical Guitar Open-Mic Nights. The performances are held at the Miami Conservatory of Music in Coconut Grove. Last week was my first opportunity to go and perform. Well, I did it!!

While the night was very casual and informal, it was still a stage with a mic and an audience, so it was a lot like a real performance. I wouldn’t say that I was nervous, but I sure was rusty.

I always forget how hard it is to START playing. I mean, you walk up, introduce yourself, maybe make a joke or comment and then there is a second or two of absolute silence. Ugh! I hate that silence. The audience is just staring at you and you have to just GO… Start!

With rock music you can usually unleash a KRRRRANNNGGGG chord to shatter the nerves and then dive right in. No such luck with classical guitar. You are supposed to be 100% beautiful sounding from the first note. Oh, brother.

I’d say my performance at the open mic was a solid 70% beautiful. I played two short pieces: “Andantino” Op.241 by Ferdinand Carulli, and “Classical Gas” by Mason Williams. These were two of the very first pieces I learned on the classical guitar and I have been playing them for a long time. At Gables Guitar Studio I can make these pieces sound great. I mean I have worked on them to the point where I can really dig in. I can manipulate tempo and dynamics, and make artistic choices as far as phrasing and direction… I can do all that when I play AT HOME. Being out there in front of people, even in this informal setting, is very different.

Right before I started the Carulli piece I had a moment to center myself and I could feel it. About 30% of my brain was just unavailable. I have performed in front of people enough to kill most of the actual fear that I used to feel. My heart rate and breathing were normal, and my hands were steady. But that part of the brain still always kind of shuts off when it’s go time. Maybe that part of the brain still feels all that fear and I’ve just gotten really good at blocking it out when I need to.

Either way, the mental block prevented me from being present on stage this time. Without presence any hope for a true performance was squashed. Whatever part of my brain is needed for interpretation, and nuance was all walled-up. Instead I merely recited my two pieces essentially from muscle memory. While this kind of performance squarely placed me in the chump category, this is about as good as I could have hoped for this time around. This was, after all, my first time on a real stage playing solo classical repertoire. I consider it a success having made it through without crashing and burning (which was a very real possibly here). Still, If I am ever going to become comfortable enough to become a truly present classical performer, I have to get more time in front of audiences. I will keep swinging hammers at that mental wall in the hope that it will break.

So its back to the rehearsal room to prepare to do it again next month. I have been going over my repertoire book during my practice time trying to decide what I might play at the next classical guitar open mic. Right now it looks like I’ll probably try to play “Lagrima” and “Romanza de Amor”.

Who knows though? Things are also progressing really fast for me lately, especially in terms of technique. Maybe I could have a complete flamenco falsetta by then. That would be awesome. Time will tell.

If you are interested in performing at the next open mic, it will most likely be held at the Miami Conservatory of Music:

Miami Conservatory of Music
mayfair center
2911 grand avenue
suite 400 A
miami, fl 33133

They haven’t announced the date yet, but when they do I’m sure it will be posted on the Florida Guitar Foundation website.

Classical Guitar Open Mic Night

This weekend the Florida Guitar Foundation is hosting an open mic night at the Miami Conservatory of Music. I have signed up to perform “Classical Gas” by Mason Williams. I am a little nervous because I really never perform classical style pieces for a crowd. I have been running the piece a lot in rehearsal so I think it will go well. I hope I can pull it off when the time comes.

You don’t have to be a member of the foundation to perform. The performance is open to all classical style guitarists in the Miami area. But I think they want you to RSVP with your name and the piece you’d like to play. If you want in you can email them at: info@floridaguitarfoundation.org.

Incidentally, if you play classical guitar or even just really enjoy listening to it, you should join the Florida Guitar Foundation. You get a basic membership if you donate $40.00 (even less for students). Of course you could always donate more too. Give a little support for the arts! Membership gets you discounts in their classical concert series and some other perks. For all the details, CLICK HERE to check out the foundation’s website.

Paola has also recently written a small feature article on the Guitar Foundation on her blog which you can check out over at Coral Gables Love.

I am not THAT involved with the group. I have seen some of their AMAZING concerts and I’m looking forward to join the guitar ensemble when they reconvene in the Fall. And then of course there is this open mic thing. Right now it seems like they do this open mic every few months, but I think the Guitar Foundation has plans to start do it regularly once every month. I hope that is true because I really like the opportunity to test out the classical music that I have been rehearsing on actual audiences as much as possible.

There is no telling whether an audience of mostly guitar players will be more or less nerve racking than and audience of average music lovers. I mean the Florida Guitar Foundation has faculty from the University of Miami and the Miami Conservatory of Music. These are some of the best classical guitarists in the country! So I am hoping they won’t judge my performance too harshly. I’m just kidding. I have met a bunch of these guys and they really couldn’t be nicer and more welcoming.

So if you can make it out this Friday, be sure to say hi. No telling when I’ll be playing, but I am really looking forward to seeing everybody else play. Maybe I’ll post a video of my performance on this blog… of course that is IF the performance goes well!

Either way, when it comes to performing, I like to think that you really can’t lose. Performance failures are all valuable (and usually necessary) learning opportunities. And successful performances, well… that is really what this is all about, isn’t it?

The Miami Conservatory of Music is located at 2911 Grand Ave, Suite 400A, Miami, FL 33133.

Getting The Blues

The Blues is one of the most fascinating developments in the entire history of music. At once profoundly simple and staggeringly complex, the blues seems to capture the very essence of pain, struggle, and the whole of human experience. After emerging from the folk songs of African Americans living in the deep South, the blues quickly grew to captivate listeners all of the world, and has endured ever since as a major driving force behind most of the music of the last 100 years. Counted among the descendants of the blues are: jazz, rock and roll, country, bluegrass, Americana, soul, hip hop, and countless other genres and sub-genres.

The guitar played a pivotal role in the the history of the blues. Second only to voice, the guitar is the most common sound in blues instrumentation. Many of the earliest blues musicians were solo singers who accompanied themselves by playing guitar while they sang. Ultimately however, it was blues music that played and even bigger role in the history and development of the guitar. It was the popularity of the blues that rocketed the guitar from musical novelty, to the most popular instrument in the world in just a few decades.

Because the blues is so integral to the guitar’s development, nearly all guitar teachers tutor their students in the blues. Most students looking to learn to play steel string acoustic or electric guitar should try to gain a working knowledge of the blues. Many of the early blues songs can be mastered by beginning guitarists and sound awesome when played by a single guitar. So even if you’re goal is to be the next Yngwie Malmsteen, you should strive to tackle some blues standards FIRST. Even Yngwie himself became very devoted to learning the blues at one point in his career.

I think a lot of today’s guitar students should start by simply LISTENING to the blues. Luckily, recorded music started shortly after the emergence of the blues so we have authentic recordings of blues music from many of the original artists. I put together this Spotify playlist of some key recording that can help break you into the blues.

As you listen to these recordings, listen for what the guitar is doing, but also listen to vocal. Listen to the way the words are repeated. This will give you the best way understanding the blues form. Listen to the way the melody rises and falls in the vocal. This is where you will begin to understand blues phrasing.

Simply listening to the blues is the best way to start to understand this amazing art form. Then, when you decide to take guitar classes, a guitar teacher can help tutor you on the finer points like blues scales and chord progressions.