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.
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.
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!
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:
*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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.