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.
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.
Most of you already know that we recently relocated Gables Guitar Studio to a new home. This past weekend, as we were moving in the last of the studio gear and getting settled in, I started to get a sense of the lesson environment coming together in the new space.
I think anyone would agree that we carried over the same professional music studio vibe we’ve always had. I mean the place is very clean, quiet, uncluttered. And we still have Paola’s art collection and rock posters on the walls to keep it from feeling too serious or uptight. But the new lesson space is also different in a lot of ways. The dimensions of the lesson room are different. The acoustics are different. The lighting is different. The furniture is laid out differently.
It’s not bad, in fact overall I like the new place better than our original location for many reasons. But it got me thinking about all the different places I’ve taught guitar over the years and how all these different lesson environments seemed to contribute to outcomes with different students.
The earliest guitar lessons I remember were in the back rooms of music shops. It must have been about 1993. To call these places ‘rooms’ is pretty generous. They were basically closets with two folding chairs facing each other set about 3 feet apart. Most had a dusty boombox with a tape deck. I remember how messy these rooms were. Older kids would smoke cigarettes in there and write graffiti on the walls. The teachers would tack up 8×11″ posters torn out of Guitar World Magazine. The posters always featured the pantheon of major shredders: Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen, or George Lynch. The corners were always full of crumpled up notes and bits of hand-copied sheet music, and of course picks of every shape, size, and color; left behind by so many students.
It’s hard to say what effect the music shop had on my actual lessons. It’s easy to romanticize those dusty, poorly ventilated spaces 20 years later, but the truth is it was pretty uncomfortable and chaotic. I was lucky in that my first teachers were all great. I learned a lot while I was there, but what I didn’t learn was how to really practice effectively.
Fast forward 10 years. Now it’s 2005: same town (Davie, FL), different music shop, and now I’m the teacher. The lesson rooms were still small and crammed in one next to the other. You could sill hear everything going on in the rooms on either side of you. At least, by this time, smoking in these little rooms was not allowed! Each of these lessons rooms featured a desktop computer. I and the other guitar instructors were told to base all of our lessons around this new software that was basically like a bunch of powerpoint slides on rock guitar techniques. All of my students at the time were young kids and they were bored to death by the software. I stopped using it after the first week and started making up lessons based on how I learned and what the kids wanted to learn. Computers and other tech can be a great tool to help the learning process. It was around this time that I started using GuitarPro software to properly type, edit and and print the lesson material I had design. But it can also be a huge distraction. I remember a lot of young kids just wanted to watch music videos on this new thing called YouTube.
Skip ahead about 5 years I moved to Coral Gables and started teaching on my own. For the first few years I traveled to students’ homes. I remember the very first student’s house I set foot in. He was an older guy who it turns out had no proper chairs in his entire house. All he had to sit on was this weird designer sofa that you would sort of sink into. I had tried to bring everything I thought I needed: music stand, blank sheet music, print-outs for material I thought we’d cover. But I hadn’t thought of chairs. That lesson and every lessons afterward we had to play standing up in his living room.
After that I traveled to many other students’ homes. Some environments were comfortable and quiet. Others were a total nightmare. And you can imagine that the students’ progress on the instrument was heavily correlated with how well their home environment worked as a music studio. The ones who really couldn’t get it together got less out of each lesson and practiced less in between lessons. They became frustrated often and suffered a higher drop-out rate.
Finally, when I started Gables Guitar Studio in 2013, I got to see what a real professional studio environment could do for guitar students. Learning to play guitar in a proper music studio environment affords the student many important advantages. At Gables Guitar we have just one lesson room and it is truly a room – not a closet. I sit students down in front of a big wall mirror so that they can see what they look like playing in order to eliminate numerous bad habits associated with bad playing posture. We have proper guitar stool, foot stools, music stand, and many other accessories on hand for when we need them. We have access to my library of guitar books covering virtually every style of music. You never know where a lesson might lead so it’s good to have access to as many lesson resources as possible at all times. Most importantly, I can ensure that the place is clean, quiet and comfortable so that the students can maximize their concentration on the lesson material.
I appreciate the huge difference the studio environment makes in both children and adult students; especially beginners who need to learn what an effective practice environment looks like. I mean we’re not as strict as a conservatory. A lot of kids just want to play Green Day or the Black Keys. But even simple rock songs require very solid techniques. When they come into the studio they are automatically prepared to take their lessons more seriously.
The more distractions we can remove the more students can focus on the lesson and absorb the material. Then when they go home they know exactly the kind of environment they need to try an replicate during their practice time. It only takes a simple shift in intention to go from a disorganized struggle to a focused, methodical type of personal training. But I think most students need to see the inside of a real studio in order for all this to really sink in. I know i did!
I’m so glad that I am able to offer my students this kind of musical environment to work on building their guitar skills. I certainly helps maximize my ability as an instructor. I think in this new space we have even better control over the environment. It is really great to kind of start again in this new space knowing all the things that I have learned about building a guitar studio. This new place is a bit like Gables Guitar Studio 2.0. For those of you that have been with me for some time, I think that you’ll find the new space is a little bit better suited to the way we do things.
If you haven’t been a part of Gables Guitar Studio but are thinking about trying lessons, I look forward to showing you all that our new studio has to offer.
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.
Attention all Private Lesson Students at Gables Guitar Studio:
Hopefully I have told all of you individually by now, but I want to make sure that I mention our upcoming move officially here on the Gables Guitar blog. So here goes:
Effective June 1st, 2015, Gables Guitar Studio will move all business to our new address:
224 Palermo Avenue
Coral Gables, Florida 33134
This new location is very near our current location. It is less the a half mile down Ponce (see the map for more detail). I believe that you will all find this new space to be more convenient as we will be able to offer you FREE PARKING. Our new building has a small parking lot in the alley between Palermo and Catalonia Avenue.
We plan to finish moving all the books and equipment this weekend so that lessons can begin at the new space as soon as Tuesday, May 26th. So this week, classes will be held in the current space as usual and then next week we will see you at 224 Palermo.
The new address is not hard to find but you might want to allow yourself a few extra minutes of travel time next week if you aren’t familiar with the area. Of course if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to call me directly: (305)582-6881
Thanks so much and I look forward to showing you all our cool new space!
Whether you are just starting out or you’ve been trying to teach yourself for a while, chances are you’ve considered taking one-on-one guitar lessons. If you’ve never actually sat down with a professional guitar instructor, allow me to show you just a few of the advantages formal guitar lessons have to offer.
Advantage #1 : There is a tremendous history of over 200 years of accumulated knowledge about the guitar.
The modern guitar is the product of a rich history that stretches back over 200 years. The collected body of knowledge, technique, and repertoire for guitar is made up of thousands of truly brilliant musical insights. These insights came from an incredible diversity of musical geniuses from different times and places: from the late eighteenth century master and teacher Ferdinand Sor, to modern guitar heroes like Jimi Hendrix. All this knowledge and innovation is great, and has made the guitar the most popular instrument on earth, but it can also be extremely overwhelming to beginning guitar players. Luckily, for as long as guitarists have been inventing new techniques and sounds on the guitar, generations of guitar teachers have agonized over how to breakdown and package all this information to keep beginner students on track.
Advantage #2 : Weekly guitar classes will help you avoid dozens of bad habits.
Anyone who’s ever played guitar knows that even the most basic aspects of guitar technique are not easy at first. Guitar playing requires amounts of strength, flexibility, and precision in the hands that nobody possess initially. What is worse is that in the early stages, technical development is not at all intuitive. Due to the beginner’s lack of muscle development and flexibility, many things that “feel” right can actually lead to bad habits that can severely curtail the proper development. Throughout my years of teaching guitar I’ve seen so many beginners gravitate toward the same common mistakes. In the first few classes a big part of what we do as guitar instructors involves reminding beginners of these bad habits and encouraging them to practice properly so that they can develop the strength and flexibility to truly play the guitar beautifully.
Advantage #3 : Weekly guitar classes help you create a practice routine.
These days there is no shortage of information out there on the internet about how to play the guitar. There are tons of DVDs, YouTube tutorials, interactive software, even video games to try and help you learn to play guitar. All this information is great. It’s very useful stuff and you should try to take advantage of all of it. But you should also know that despite whatever anyone tells you, there is only ONE way to become a guitar player: PRACTICE. How well you play depends entirely on how well you practice. The most valuable thing I can offer beginner guitarists is to teach them how to practice. Later, with more advanced students, we learn how to evolve the practice routine so that it changes as the guitarist’s abilities change and grow. One of the scariest things about learning guitar is that you can waste a lot of time if you are not using effective practice methods. Even if you think you are working hard, you can stagnate indefinitely without an efficient and comprehensive practice plan. Don’t do this. Find a good guitar teacher who can help you set goals and develop a practice routine so that you can meet your goals in a timely fashion.
Another side note to this point is that weekly lessons tend to force people to practice more frequently than they would on their own. When it’s just you on your own, maybe you’ll practice today. Maybe you’ll skip a day, or 2, or 3… Who’s going to care other than you? This is how people tend to drift when they don’t have that weekly appointment reminding them to work hard and get better. Those skipped days turn into skipped weeks or months and pretty soon all momentum is lost. Worst of all you may become further discouraged from starting up again because of these setbacks. By signing up for guitar classes you are making a clear commitment that will go a long way to keeping you from falling off track. You are also specifically enlisting another person (your guitar instructor) to care about and actively monitor your progress. A good guitar instructor should be as invested in your progress as you are.
Advantage #4 : Lessons help you build tools.
The practice routine mentioned above can be considered one essential tool to learning the guitar in a reasonable amount of time. But it isn’t the only one. There are many others. Musical literacy is also a great tool. Strong internal sense of rhythm is another. A good guitar teacher can integrate the development of these important tools right into your weekly guitar classes. Developing the right tools for yourself can really change the whole experience of learning guitar. Without tools you will have to do many times more work for a small fraction of the outcome. WITH the right tools you can achieve amazing things from surprisingly little effort.
Advantage #5 : Lessons show you things you don’t know you need to know.
If the guitar is your first musical instrument, then you are not just learning guitar, you are also learning what it means to be a musician. There are many important concepts that most beginners aren’t aware of. If you are relying only on yourself to direct your musical study, there are things you’ll never teach yourself because you don’t know that they exist. A good guitar instructor will bring these things to your attention right when you need them most. This way you focus on what you need as you need it.
If you are going to learn to play the guitar, you should learn to play the instrument really well. It isn’t easy. In fact, it’s quite hard and most of the people who try the guitar quit before they can even play anything. Don’t let this happen to you. The advantages of formal guitar lessons are what makes this seemingly impossible task possible.