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.
A Simpler Time
When I think back to my own music teachers, they would often give very simple answers: “ALWAYS do this… NEVER do that…” Even at a young age I knew that these kinds of axiomatic rules didn’t perfectly apply to guitar playing. Not only did the axioms not perfectly apply, but over time they tended to shift and even completely contradict themselves.
An example of this is the left hand thumb. In lesson 1 a good guitar teacher will stress the importance of placing the thumb in the middle of the neck and never N-E-V-E-R letting it go over the top of the neck. Now, if you go and look at any professional rock guitar players on YouTube you see that EVERYBODY has their thumb over the top. So who is wrong? ALL of the professional guitar teachers, or ALL of the professional guitarists? The answer is neither. Both are right, but at different times.
A beginner needs to keep the thumb down so that they develop finger independence, good hand strength, etc. Then, years later, a more developed player can throw the thumb over the top to facilitate more complex techniques like string bending, or to get a more natural wrist angle while playing standing up. So both are right.
The advice to NEVER let the thumb over the top is the best thing you can tell a beginner. Even though it doesn’t stay true forever, the definite simplicity of saying “NEVER DO THIS” is exactly what a beginner needs to hear at the beginning. As I continue to gain experience as a teacher, I am learning that “it depends” is a terrible answer to give anyone. There is always a definitive answer for a given player at a given time, and it is the guitar instructor’s job to figure that out and provide those answers to the student.
This is one major reason why it is incredibly difficult to teach yourself to play, particularly in this age of information. Part of the point I am trying to make here is that too much information can be as bad as none at all if the information you are getting is contradictory. What is needed to learn something like guitar isn’t information, but a process.
Here’s Where The Pendulum Comes In
I like using the idea of a pendulum to describe what it is like using contradictory information like this in a process that is effective. You let the pendulum swing one way for a while. Observe the benefits as well as the problems of doing so. Then you let the pendulum swing the other way and and observe what happens.
If you want to see something really fascinating: DONT STOP AFTER JUST ONE CYCLE. Let the pendulum go back and forth and, if you are paying carful attention you will see that each time you will learn something new. This is because when we practice carefully, awareness becomes cumulative. Each time when you let the pendulum swing back, you do something the same way you did it before, you may be doing it the same way but your awareness has increased a bit from letting the pendulum swing the other way. So you can leverage this additional awareness to further refine your technique, or sensitize your interpretation or however you want to direct it.
Let me give you one practical example of this pendulum principle: about every six months, for the past several years, I change the gauge of guitar strings from 0.010’s to 0.011’s. You’d think that by now I could tell you which one is ‘best’ or which one I prefer. At the very least you’d think that I could give you some hard and fast rules like: 10’s are better for bending and 11’s have a fuller tone. I can and do offer than kind of simple advice for people who need to hear it. But I also know that there is so much more to it than that. Every time I switch to 11’s I learn something new, and every time I switch back to 10’s I learn something new. The sound I get improves as does the ease with which I play on either gauge from having cycled back and fourth from 10’s to 11’s and back over years.
My advice to students than takes the form of: “It is time to switch to 11’s.” or “It is time switch back to 10’s.” There is little value is talking on and on about tone or how it feels to bend strings. As D. Boon (legendary guitarist of the Minutemen) used to say: “The knowing is in the doing.”
So watch out for this pendulum principle. I suspect you can find it lurking behind a lot of aspects of guitar playing. Once you realize it’s there, you can use it to your advantage and overcome some of the more counterintuitive aspects of guitar playing.
Good Luck and Happy Practicing!