Tag Archives: Greenville Guitar Lessons

How to Develop Your Strumming Hand to Sing and Play at the Same Time

How to Develop Your Strumming Hand to Sing and Play at the Same Time Once my guitar students get into strumming and having fun with their guitar, the next question I usually get is, “How do I play guitar and sing at the same time?”

By the time students get around to asking this question, we are usually on to some syncopated rhythm patterns. This means there isn’t a down strum on every beat. When they go to sing, their strumming falls apart. This is because the student hasn’t trained their strumming hand to be able do both yet.

When playing guitar, it’s easy to think that we have mastered something when he haven’t really taken things out into the real world and applied them. Most guitar students try to sing and play guitar way before they have actually mastered the art of strumming.

In this article, I’m going to give you some tips for how you can develop your strumming hand to the point where you can sing and play at the same time.

 

Step 1: Simplify The Pattern

Let’s say you are working on the strumming pattern below:

In this strumming pattern, there is no down strum on the 3rd beat. That can really throw students for a loop. What I recommend is simplifying the pattern so that you can sing it. Maybe something like the one below.

This will allow you to play along with the song and sing while you continue to develop your strumming hand. I removed the syncopation to allow your brain time to place the lyrics better without the hand skipping a beat.

Step 2: Practice Mastering Your Strumming Hand

While simplifying the pattern does offer us a temporary quick fix solution, it does not solve the problem, which is the fact that your strumming hand is not yet on auto pilot. In order to do this, I want you to take a strumming pattern you know, maybe the first pattern we used in this article. It is a common one my students have trouble with and one that is used in many songs.

First, make sure you can play the pattern with your eyes closed. Once you can do that, I want you to stand up. Make sure you have a guitar strap for this next step.

Start playing the strumming pattern you ‘know so well’ and try to walk. Yes, don’t try to sing, try to walk and play that strumming pattern at the same time. When you do this, you might find it very hard to walk naturally. Maybe there are pauses in your steps, maybe there are pauses in your strumming.

Step 3: Slow Down

While practicing the above activity, go VERY slow. I mean slow. Almost like you are walking through wet cement. Focus on getting your strumming hand to work perfectly whether you are taking a step with your right or your left foot.

Once your steps smooth out, start trying to go faster and then try to run while strumming and even jumping around if you can. Once you have that down pat you can add even more syncopation like in the strum below:

Here we have three up strums in a row and that can be quite difficult for someone to walk and play never mind sing over.

Step 4: Chat It Up

Once you have mastered walking around and strumming or at least feel like you can walk at a normal pace, try and have a conversation. You can have it with someone else or on your own. Pick your strumming pattern and try to answer these questions with more than one word answers:

  1. How was your day today?
  2. What do you have played for the weekend?
  3. What your favorite song and why?

When you can talk and play at the same time without thinking about your strumming hand, then you are ready to strum and sing at the same time.

For some of my students, this process can take a couple months and others it can take a couple weeks. It really depends on how much you practice and how coordinated you are.

When singing and playing guitar at the same time, the guitar has to be on autopilot. You cannot be thinking about it at all. Muscle memory takes over at that point which frees up your brain to think about the lyrics and singing.

Believe it or not, our brains were not made for multitasking. So, if you are thinking about your strumming at all, you can kiss good-bye to your singing.

Give these tips and tricks a try. They works wonders for my students and hopefully they will work wonders for you.

About The Author: Lauren Bateman is a successful voice and guitar coach in the Boston area. She and her staff have helped thousands of students learn to have fun with music. If you are looking for guitar or piano lessons in Medford, LB Music School is a great place to learn. Lauren specialized in teaching acoustic and rhythm guitar lessons and loves helping student strum and sing along to their favorite songs.

The Trap of Learning Songs

By Chad Crawford, PMI Guitar Instructor

“I want to learn songs … now!”

This sentiment is probably the number one reason that most people who pick up a guitar never make it past a very minimal level of musicianship. It is not that wanting to learn beloved, personally inspiring songs is wrong in itself. Contrarily, learning specific songs is a great motivator, a useful learning tool, and is often the ultimate purpose of many aspiring guitarists. There is not a thing wrong with that. I enjoy coaching clients through the process of mastering songs they love. It is very gratifying and affirming for me to see them work through the process to the end and be able to enjoy playing their favorite songs. Like any teacher who is in it mostly for the love of teaching, students’ successes are the primary reason I do this.

As a teacher of completely voluntary students one of the roles I must reluctantly embrace is that I occasionally have to inform clients of things that they are not necessarily happy to hear, such as the amount of time and effort involved in learning their favorite songs. Sometimes it inspires the necessary results in their approach and all is well, and that is of course what I always hope for. In some cases it results in a client becoming discouraged over things that seem out of reach.

Of course I never wish to discourage my clients, but there is no other way than straight through to get results for a client who is caught up in one of these common self-defeating thought/feeling traps. I have to persistently confront the erroneous thinking as diplomatically as possible and hopefully persuade them to set it aside so we can get on with realistic approaches that actually work.

It is part two of the opening sentiment – “… now!” – that provokes many aspiring guitarists to pull their aim off target and instead shoot themselves in the foot. There is an implication in that latter sentiment that betrays a certain self-defeating misunderstanding.  Despite my ongoing efforts to steer people out of this trap, it persists in hindering the motivation and robbing the hard won gains of many otherwise promising students of music.

Let us then pull that lurking bit of thought poison out of the shadowy recesses and hold it up to the illuminating light of informed scrutiny. We will do so by adding the underlying implications into the original sentiment so that it is more apparent what it really means. Here is the revised statement, “I want to play songs just like they sound on the original artists’ recordings, and I thought the whole point of lessons was to show me how to make the songs fall right out of my fingers.”

If you are thinking in this way then consider these facts about the process of learning songs:

  1. Based on my own 40+ years of playing guitar, 19 years of teaching, and the collective wisdom of the musician community compiled since the days of ancient Greece: if you are in marginal or better health with a mind sound enough to read this and reasonably functional hands, and you cannot play a song that you wish to play, there is one and only one root cause for it: you have not yet applied yourself adequately to the work required to remember and execute the motions required to reproduce the song. Yes, it is that simple.
  2. Simple does not necessarily mean easy. So it further boils down to the idea conveyed in this Southern colloquialism: you either gonna do it or you ain’t. If you’re in the middle of the process, then you are doing it. Keep up the good work and be patient. The results you seek are inevitable.
  3. Once you get the first one done, the next one will still be challenging, but that sense of hopelessness will be greatly diminished and will continue to dissipate with each new success. 
  4. Regarding solos, you do not have to have it sound exactly like the original artist’s studio recorded version of a song for it to sound good. You would need to have the original artist’s gear, fingers, musical personality, and the studio enhancements to make it sound exactly like the original. In many cases the original artists do not even play the exact same thing live that they played on the studio recordings. They don’t even try, because they know it is going to be impossible to remember every single note from their entire catalog. There are exceptions … artists who play really simple songs, or else practice for seven hours a day seven days a week. They are notable because they are exceptions. For hobbyists in particular it is counterproductive to tie up huge amounts of time trying to learn and maintain exact replicas of songs.
  5. Learning songs involves a number elements that can present challenges. If you haven’t done the preliminary work in knowledge and technique, forget playing songs. Before even beginning to approach this, you need to know the required chords and scales, be able to finger them instantly, have a well-developed picking/strumming technique that is well-coordinated with your fretting hand, and have a sufficiently developed sense of rhythm and timing to be able to keep up with the song. Then you must study the song in order to learn and remember the chords, melodies, where they fall in the song, the rhythm, and if you want to learn the solo that adds another especially significant challenge to memory and technique. Study means just that: study! Listen, analyze, decipher. Then start performing repetitions. Eliminate mistakes. Repeat until you can play the song.

 

So the bottom line is, learning songs is not easy, not automatic, and there is no trick, method, or program that is going to make it happen without substantial effort.

The good news is that it is not nearly as hard as some folks allow it to be by allowing frustration to rage out of control. I read of a Civil War commander who continued to lead a battle from a horse after taking a shot in the leg. Then he got half a foot shot off, and continued to lead the battle until he took a body shot, fell off his horse, and slowly bled to death. That’s hard. Sitting comfortably in a quiet climate controlled room and rewinding to a chord change for the fifteenth time so you can figure out the chord and exactly where it is changing … not hard enough to be worth mentioning.

Are there any short cuts? Yes, much more so now than at any time in the history of music. Teachers, transcriptions, slow-down software, and free Internet videos. It is easier now than it has ever been to take a big bite out of the analysis and deciphering parts of the process by having either a person or a piece of paper show you what is being played. Nonetheless, you cannot get around study completely since you will still need to hear/feel the chord changes, melodies, and rhythm for yourself, and you will still need to listen, perform repetitions, eliminate mistakes, and repeat parts until you have the song memorized and physically under control. It is just plain work, and no person, method, or gimmick can do that part of the work for you.

I decided to tackle the solos for Sweet Home Alabama in my college days. At that time I was mostly self-taught as far as popular music styles such as Southern Rock. I was working full time in addition to school, so I had very little time to practice. The classical training that I had been through at that time did not help me with this type of song. I picked up a copy of a Lynyrd Skynyrd tablature anthology and started working on the parts. My fingers were up to it, but I did not have the musical context to see the scales, so I had to memorize the solos the hard way: one note at a time, stacking up one phrase after another until I had them memorized. This took me about a year to learn these solos to the point that I could get through them reasonably accurately and then I had to continue polishing the technique and timing details.

Since I had started learning at the age of six with a full size acoustic guitar that I could barely hold, I don’t have any memories of ever having any perspective about playing guitar other than that progress follows work. I found out only after I started teaching that many folks have terrific misunderstandings about the process of learning music, namely that it is supposed to be easy. Of course I would have liked to pick those solos up faster and moved on to other things, but it never occurred to me that there was anything unusual about it taking longer than I would have preferred. Yes, I did come up with some “creative improvisational lyrics” that I often inserted into those solos while repeating them over and over trying to get them to stick in my memory. Yes, I was often frustrated that I had to do schoolwork or chores rather than spend more time on my solos. But I kept working on them until I could play them. It never occurred to me to give up because it was challenging. And it was worth the effort.

Learning songs will never be effortless, but you can ultimately make it much easier and faster by buckling down in the beginning of your musical studies and mastering the basics of music theory and technique, so that the elements of a given song are not completely new to your ears, understanding, and fingers. This is why I refuse to teach songs outside the context of an overall approach to mastery in the basics. With the decades of experience I have at this I can pick up rhythms almost instantly, and chords/signature licks for most popular music take only a few minutes. I couldn’t pick them up that fast when I started playing guitar, nor even for many years after. If it is a really complex song like a lot of progressive rock, or a style I am not accustomed to, then I may have to spend more time with it, and certainly if there are long or high speed solos then it will take some time to decipher, memorize, and embed in muscle memory through repetition. That’s perfectly normal. It doesn’t mean you are failing at music or suffering some unusual lack of talent. That’s just how being a musician works. There is a great deal of enjoyment, but there is also a lot of work and that’s just the way it is. It is worth it. The sooner you get the basics under control the sooner you can get on to playing your favorite songs, and the more time you spend transcribing songs yourself the better you get at it, just like everything else in life.

In the words of that illustrious philosopher Larry the Cable Guy, like much in life it comes down to this: “Git ‘er Done!”

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

 

Besting the Beast of Boredom

Chad Crawford, PMI Guitar Instructor

 

The process of learning to play guitar involves some basic training exercises that are designed to increase knowledge and physical skills in numerous areas. Most of us are impatient to play at the level we envisioned when we started this process. The repetition of basic concepts and physical exercises can be tedious at times, especially when we do not feel we are seeing any measurable results.

This is quite normal. All musicians go through this, and the truth is that it never ends. Once we master some new skill or technique, there is always another one waiting in line to challenge us again. It is critical to learn to maintain your motivation to work through boredom and get on to playing like you want to play.

So let’s consider how boredom develops, and then how you can combat it. Your teacher gives you a new exercise. You begin to practice it. It is exciting at first because it is new and you know it is a direct step toward your goal of fluent playing. But then after a number of repetitions you have it memorized. Eventually you are just going through the motions mindlessly. It becomes less and less interesting and eventually turns into something that feels more like work than entertainment. You may even get to the point that you hate to even think of doing the exercise again and you feel reluctant to even pick up the guitar at all.

This is the critical point where you have to make a decision. You can give in to the beast of boredom and quit, or you can work to find a way around the beast and eventually reach a point where your playing is quite gratifying. It is important to realize this – becoming bored is a natural consequence of the human condition, but staying bored is a choice, and you have the power to choose otherwise.

What to do?

Substitution: The first thing you should do is to inform your teacher that you are struggling. It may be that the teacher can substitute some other song or exercise, or work with you on some other area that is more satisfying to you for the time being. However, you should consider input from the teacher before making the final decision on this. It may be that it is best for your long term goals to finish mastering the material you are currently struggling with. Your teacher should be able to offer some kind of explanation as to the value of the material you are working with and this may help you in maintaining your interest in working through it.

Alteration: If you have become bored with an exercise or some other aspect of your practice routine, trying altering it in some way. This is particularly important in improvisational soloing. It is very easy and very common to fall into the trap of playing the same note sequences with the same embellishments and the same timing. Straight eight notes is the bane of many aspiring soloists, and it is the easiest trap to fall into since timing choices (or lack thereof) are not as readily apparent as note choices. Try changing the timing of your collection of stock phrases, then work on changing timing mid-phrase, hold one note noticeably longer than the rest, etc. This is much more challenging than playing straight time (same time value for every note) and may seem impossibly difficult at first, but it will certainly shake up the feeling of boredom and will also make you a much better improvisational soloist.

Inspiration: Every aspiring guitarist has a reason (or combination of reasons) that inspires the effort to learn guitar. Often it is a parent or other significant figure who plays an instrument. In many cases it is admiration for some notable professional guitarist, or a particular song or type of music that the student wants to play. Whatever the case may be, it is important to keep that motivational reason in the front of your mind while going through the learning process. Boredom is a feeling – a feeling of restless dissatisfaction. When you are confronted with boredom reflect on the satisfaction you will feel when you reach your goal. Combat the unproductive feeling of boredom by choosing to meet it with one that inspires you to keep working toward your goal.

Challenge: Another way to combat boredom is to find a new challenge in whatever you are doing. So you are working on some exercise and you have repeated it enough times that you know every note, every motion, etc., so that it begins to feel uninteresting. So what can you do to change it so that it is challenging again? Look for ways to improve the details of your performance. For instance, you have played through a chord change exercise for what feels like a thousand times and you feel like you are done with it. Is it possible you can improve the speed at which you execute the change from one chord to another? Probably. Are you inadvertently muting any strings while strumming the chords? Probably. Is it possible that a metronome will reveal that you are not keeping good time throughout the progression? Probably. Break out these details and set small goals within the overall exercise, and then challenge yourself to improve in these details. As you focus on these parts within the overall goal you will find satisfaction in challenge and accomplishment. You can not be bored when you are intently focused on solving a problem. In fact, you might just find that your main problem is that you do not have as much time for practice as you would prefer!

Substitution … alteration … inspiration … challenge … these four powerful weapons will help you cut the beast of boredom down to a manageable size. Keep these things in mind, and review this article if necessary when you find yourself feeling dreadful of your practice routine. Remember that perseverance is the key to success. It is your choice whether to excel or expire, but with the right tools in your toolbox the road to excellence will be a lot smoother. Choose well!

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

Technique vs. Feel: Which Is More Important?

By Chad Crawford, PMI Guitar Instructor

If you have been learning guitar for any length of time then you know that unbridled self-expression is a long term project rather than a once-done event. Along the way you may at times find yourself wrestling with a vague sensibility that your playing seems to be technically correct as best you can tell, but yet does not seem to have the lively gut-wrenching feel of your favorite guitarist playing the same thing. Then you may be tempted to think that your technique development endeavors are not getting the job done. If you go online to read some articles about such things, you may stumble across lengthy arguments regarding whether or not technique is more important than feel, whether or not music theory stifles creativity, and so forth. If you are in that stage where you have pretty good technique but do not feel that you are expressing yourself well, you will probably be tempted to align with the “feel/creativity” side of this age old debate, versus the “technique/theory” side.

Let me point out some pertinent issues before addressing the core of the matter: (1) humans (myself included) are averse to work and we will latch on to any rationalization we can find to get out of doing some work, such as technique development, and (2) people who do not have a fully developed understanding of a thing often insist on convenient, simple answers to things where such answers do not exist. So it goes with ideas about learning guitar. Aligning with either extreme in the “technique or feel” debate betrays a lack of experience that leads to further lack of understanding and consequent erroneous judgments over the more subtle aspects of musicianship. Asking whether technique is more important than feel is like asking if a tire is more important than the wheel it mounts to. In both cases, neither can do its job without the other such that they are both critical to achieving the desired results.

So here is the core of the matter: Playing with feel is not the opposite of playing with good technique, but is rather the outgrowth of having developed your technique to the point that it is no longer a barrier between you and self-expression.

By way of example, I recall in my youth being greatly moved by certain beloved songs. I had more than enough feel. I was bursting over with it. What I did not have was any idea how to make such sounds come out of my guitar. My lack of knowledge and technique utterly crippled my efforts to pull what I wanted to express out of my guitar. I needed knowledge of what my favorite artists were doing, and the precise finger control and hand coordination to make it happen. Without sufficient mastery of technique, all the feel in the universe is useless in making music.

So I set out on my technique development journey with a scale book, metronome, and various private lessons. Some years later I reached a point where I could rip through scales at speeds I would have never thought possible for myself, but I still could not make my licks sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan’s level of raw passion roaring from every phrase (or at least not to the level I wanted to … some folks thought my playing was quite good at that point).

The next level for me was working on refinement of my bending and vibrato, particularly the accuracy of the start and stop points of the bending, plus the rate and proportions of the sweep of the bend. Then to nail these down beyond pure technique accuracy, I looked toward my favorite Blues players and mimicked their technique. Bear in mind, if I had not had the experience and results of laying the foundation of accurate and timely bends then I would not have had the ear for what my favorite artists were doing, much less the finger control to reproduce it.

Then I needed work on my pick attack. I think much of the “feel” in guitar music comes from the pick attack, which varies a bit from one guitar player to another, and from one style to another. Pick attack is a very personal part of musicality, but there are certain universal aspects of pick technique that enable good playing … proper pick hold, strong articulation, accurate timing, playing to the song, etc. Again, without the pick technique foundations you will not have control to apply the subtleties that make for true self-expression.

It is also important to understand that no matter how well you have developed your technique, if you do not resonate with what you hear coming from the guitar then you are not going to be able to play with maximum feel. Self-expression is ultimately a sort of dance between you and your guitar, transcending technique. Technique must be something that is done and out of the way, but you also must enjoy and be moved by your guitar’s tone to get the most out of your playing. If you are not sure what your tonal preference is, just listen to your favorite guitarist and start tweaking your tone towards that. Much like overall musicality, tone development is not a once-done event, but rather a process. The sooner you get started the sooner you will find a tone that compels you rather than hinders you, and then you continually tweak from there as your ear and tastes develop.

Now let us consider a more subtle aspect of music that you must be aware of to avoid undue frustrations with your playing. If you want to play with feel, you must play music that you truly feel! As an example, I am never going to play highly expressive solos in certain styles such as progressive metal, jazz, or bluegrass flatpicking, because I do not really resonate with these styles. This is not because I have any contempt for them or those who play them, but they do not move me as do Blues and Classic Rock. This does not mean that I can not play anything at all over these styles, but my best playing will always happen when I am playing along with Blues or Classic Rock or their close cousins. So if for instance you are attending my group classes, you may not really resonate with all of the variety of songs I use for these since I need to appeal to the tastes and abilities of a broad audience. So, if you find that your solos are coming out somewhat lifeless in these situations, realize that this does not mean you are failing at guitar. Always strive to improve your overall skills of course, and recognize that sometimes being a musician means playing what suits others rather than just yourself. At the same time, recognize that you are never going to be able to get into the “zone” while playing music that does not really stir you up inside. That is perfectly normal, even for pros. (If you take a moment to think about it you will notice that most highly regarded guitarists are known for excellence in only one very narrow range of style.)

Likewise, when playing open jams, playing with a friend, or being put on the spot by someone who knows you are taking lessons asking you play for them, realize that you are not going to do your best playing in these situations, so don’t judge your skills by how you perform under these conditions. Open jams are notorious for including musicians who are not well developed enough to keep good time. You can not feel the music when one or more instruments of the rhythm section is out of time, and you can not resolve phrases properly when a chord change you are expecting is early, late, or just wrong. When you get put on the spot with no warm up you are not going to be able to play as well as after you have had thirty minutes or an hour of playing behind you. The best thing to do with these types of situations is to avoid them. If you wish to play open jams then just play rhythm as best you can and see if the general level of musicianship is going to allow for good soloing with feel, before attempting to cut loose with your best chops. If someone pulls out a guitar from a closet and asks you to show them what you’ve got, tell them you are going to show them some Hendrix first and then smash the guitar over their head. If you are attempting to play in a band and the group is not in good time with one another (i.e., “tight), then do not expect your best playing to happen with this group unless and until they get it together.

Finally, we need to strike a balance between technique development and making music. In answer to a question like “how much technique development do I need to invest my limited time in”, I respond, “rough rule of thumb for a hobbyist, about 20% more than you need to play the music you want to play”. For instance, if you wish to play Blues and Classic Rock, then you do not need to invest a lot of time in cultivating sweep arpeggios to 1000 notes per minute, but you should work on speeding up pentatonic scales and licks to 20% past the speed that you will use them in live playing. This gives you a buffer to offset stage fright, distracting anomalies in the rhythm section, etc, such that you have more than enough control to listen well and play with feel at the speeds you really need, even under these imperfect conditions.

So … if you have been thinking that “feel is more important than technique”, try doing some spirited sport driving with the tires removed from your wheels. After you get out of the hospital then get back to metronome practice, and lot’s of it. 😉

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

 

Defeating the Scary Guitar Clown

By Chad Crawford, PMI Guitar Instructor

If you are in my age range or better then you may remember IT. IT was a millennia-old creepy space alien featured in the 1986 Stephen King novel of the same name, and a TV miniseries in 1990. IT manifested itself to the neighborhood children in the form of a circus clown. IT would appear in a benevolent clown form and woo the neighborhood children with laughter and promises of balloons and parties, and then when he had their confidence would morph into a scary clown and steal them away to a creepy underground bunker.

In the novel and film the surviving neighborhood kids grew up and came home to band together and defeat IT once and for all … or so they thought. The fact is, in teaching guitar to beginners and up for some years now, I have found that IT is hanging around my studio. He pops up all over the place. For example, when providing feedback on technique refinements I often hear responses such as, “I’m trying, but IT (“my hand”) wants to do it this way,” or “IT wants to tense up when I try to move that fast,”, or “IT (the pick) shifts around when I try to hold IT this way.” “IT (my thumb) wants to hook ITself over the top of the neck.” “IT (my pinkie) wants to curl up into a popcorn shrimp when I make a fifth chord.”

Indeed. Creepy IT seems to be the number one barrier to progress for many students of guitar. This need not be so, because the fact is … there is no IT. There is only YOU. YOU are the Scary Guitar Clown. It is YOU who is permitting excess tension, allowing the fingers to fly and flop around chaotically, plowing the pick through the strings like a bulldozer, allowing mental focus to drift, and generally making the hands and fingers wrestle against the strings rather then dance with them.

If you like your IT you can keep IT! However, if you want maximum results in the shortest possible time then you will have to deal IT a crushing death blow sooner rather than later. The first step in conquering IT is to acknowledge that IT is YOU. If your fingers are doing anything at all other than totally relaxing, then YOU are doing it. Apart from direct physical manipulation by someone or something other than you, your fingers can not do anything except exactly what your brain tells them to do. Pinkies do not curl up into a tight ball on their own. Likewise, if you are locking up your wrist and clamping too firmly on the pick during rhythm strokes, it is YOU tightening up the forearm muscles that control the wrist. YOU are doing that, not IT! So take responsibility and avoid passing the blame to IT!

Now let us discuss for a minute why IT gets the blame for so much technique chaos. We come from the factory equipped with several levels of control over the muscular systems. Level 1 is the autopilot mode. The heart, for example, will continue to beat at the set tempo regardless of our consciousness of it or efforts to manipulate it through focused attention. Level 2 is the autopilot with manual override. The eyelids are a good example of this one. When we are awake they close and open without any conscious attention, and when we sleep they remain closed. However, we may at any time take full control of them, either blinking, holding open, or holding closed as we prefer, until we release them back into the control of the autopilot mode. Then we have the skeletal muscles on Level 3. They run mostly in manual mode with autopilot override for special circumstances, such as the knee jerk reaction when the leg responds to a strike to the knee joint.

Then we have the fingers. How do we label the control mode of the fingers? I think most entry level guitarists would say something like, “Manual mode until I try to play guitar, then Scary Guitar Clown mode,” by which they mean that it seems impossible to fully control the fingers when trying to manipulate them individually, when IT appears to take over. Is this really true? It is partially true and partially not true. The fingers run on a mix of all the above modes, but mostly on manual control. If you don’t think they have an autopilot override, try putting them on a hot stove burner and you will see how quick they go into autopilot override.

So how does this examination help us to defeat the Scary Clown Mode? We must understand four important things about the control of the fingers:

(1) The default control mode of the fingers is a hybrid of manual control of the fingers as a group, with autopilot control of the other fingers when trying to use one independently. To illustrate, put the tips of all four fingers downward facing on the edge of a table and then use the other hand to curl the pinky until the tip touches the palm. It is quite easy, with no strain on the knuckles, muscles, or skin. Now try to do that same test with your fingers free from outside constraints, using only the control offered by your mind. You will observe that the ring finger follows along with the pinky, no matter how hard you try to separate the two. Why does this happen? Mechanically the two are completely independent. It is the default programming of the brain making the ring finger follow the pinky. The default program is to use the fingers as a group. This is great for grasping things firmly, but it is totally contrary to what we need to do as guitarists. This is the deadly IT of which we speak, and the one we must overcome in order to develop a great command over guitar technique.

 

(2) In addition to the limited degree of manual independent control we have over the fingers by default, we can cultivate greater individual finger control through focused repetition of specific movements. This is why scale practice should always be near the top of your guitar practice priorities. Scale practice is not simply a tool to remember note placement. Among other things, if done correctly it is the most powerful technique improvement tool available. With enough practice we can not only cultivate finger independence, but we can actually reprogram the autopilot portion of our finger control so that it does new things in autopilot mode, such as play through scales accurately and efficiently. This is the secret of mastering guitar technique. It is important to note here that we are reprogramming the autopilot every time we practice, regardless of whether we are practicing great technique, good technique, or slop. This is why it is important to pay attention to the details while practicing scales!

 

(3) Regarding the pick hand, it is very important to understand that you have already spent many years cultivating an alternate autopilot program that takes over when you attempt to exercise fine control over the pick hand – writing. Writing is similar to picking, but not the same, so when you allow the writing autopilot to take over when you go to pick, you will have poor control over the pick.

 

(4) Ultimately, we DO in fact have a great degree of control over individual fingers, but we must consciously choose to exert this control in defiance of the default programs. For example, I often see a tightly curled pinky when making fifth chords (power chords), and I always advise that this creates unnecessary tension, which further causes unnecessary levels of finger pressure and undue difficulties in changing from one fretboard location to another. I then advise to manual override the pinky popcorn shrimp of death while making the fifth chords. It is always a struggle at first, but I have yet to observe a student who can not eventually cultivate a new habit of keeping all the fingers straight and relaxed while executing fifth chords. Likewise, the pick hand technique always starts out with a sort of stabbing motion coming from pushing the index finger and thumb out from the side of the hand which is planted on the bridge, and then curling it back in to make the pick stroke – just like writing. With enough focused effort the student can defeat the writing program and develop a new autopilot mode of efficiently picking from the wrist, with the fingers immobile and the base of the hand planted on the guitar or strings. (See my pick technique video for in depth analysis)

 

Don’t let IT ruin your technique. IT is a formidable enemy at first, but by consciously choosing to control your fingers until they do what you want, you can send IT packing and make beautiful music instead. Get to work, and don’t stop until you get the desired results!

 

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

 

Keys to Mastery: Attention to Detail

By Chad Crawford – Guitar Instructor, Palmetto Music Institute

Don’t sweat the small stuff! So goes the old saying, and within its sphere this is a sage piece of advice. When playing guitar the ability to cruise past mistakes without getting derailed is critical. However, we need to keep in mind that playing guitar and practicing guitar are very different things. When practicing guitar we very much need to sweat the small stuff. Practice does not make perfect unless it is perfect practice! Repetition of slop guarantees playing slop. So when practicing we need to perform every detail of our technique as perfectly as possible. Of course “perfection” by its nature is not a realistic goal. The point is that we need to be continually striving to improve on the details of how we interact with the guitar. If we make “perfection” the target of our technique endeavors then our actual results will be far superior to those resulting from a vague goal like “doing the best I can”.

While doing our best is not a bad ideal, in practical application this kind of ambiguously defined goal leaves us a lot of room for actually not doing our best. If we measure doing our best solely by subjective criteria such as “this felt difficult so I must have been doing my best,” that is a well-intended but flawed yardstick by which to determine what is our best. Our best practice will result when we apply focused attention to the smallest details of our technique, measuring by objective criteria rather than by our perceptions of difficulty or success.

It is important to understand that people do not deliberately set out to practice in ways that are less than productive. Rather, focused concentration for extended periods is not our default mode of thinking, such that errors creep in just under our notice despite our general intent to “do our best”. So it is important to make a conscious effort to pay attention to the details!

Let us then look at some specific details of common technique flaws among students of guitar. Keep in mind, the goal of this discussion is constructive feedback toward the end of helping you to identify problems and correct them. Merely adopting the ideal that it is good to pay attention to detail will make no difference in your progress. You have to actually make the conscious effort to implement!

1 – Harsh Chord Changes: chord changes is one of toughest challenges for beginning guitar players. Just getting the fingers to work separately from one another at all is a full agenda. Once you get past this then the next step is to work on changing chords while keeping a rhythm pattern going. This is where the problem with attention to detail begins to show. Specifically, releasing tension on the last beat of the current chord in anticipation of the finger shifting for the next chord, such that the pick stroke yields a buzzy thud instead of a clear harmonious ringing. Most do not realize they are doing this until I point it out. Why? Because they have already shifted their focus off of the details of the current chord and onto the chord that has yet to happen. This is a perfect example of how lack of attention to detail results in undesirable sounds. If you want your chord rhythms to flow nicely so that they sound smooth then pay close attention to the last pick stroke of each chord and make sure you are retaining the fingering of the current chord until it is time to change. If this means you have to slow down to execute the chord change properly then do it. Speed up gradually as your muscle memory of the finger positioning allows it.

2 – Choppy Scales: for scales to sound their best we need to play them with no time lapse between notes. This requires consistent finger pressure on each note until the precise moment of the change to the next note, and then a coordinated execution between the fret hand finger and the pick stroke as we shift to the new note. One common problem I observe is releasing pressure on the current note just as soon as the note is made. The cause is the same as the chord changing issue … preoccupation with the note ahead to the detriment of the one currently ringing. It is critical to pay attention to keeping the current note “live” while maneuvering both hands to set up the next note. Another common problem is lack of precise coordination between the two hands such that the pick strikes the string either before or after the placement of the fret hand finger on the upcoming note. Again, both of these issues respond well to slowing down and paying attention to the details of your fingering and two hand synchronization, such that you execute notes well. Then after sufficient repetition to enforce the habits of hand, speed up gradually as your mastery allows while continuing to pay attention to these details.

3 – Bends and Vibrato: bending along with its cousin vibrato are the most powerful, expressive techniques we have as guitarists – when they are executed well. They are also among the most difficult things to master since they are entirely under your control, unlike simply fingering a single note or chord where you have the frets to help you with pitch accuracy. The common problems I see with bending and vibrato are picking the string after the bend has started, bending up to an out of tune pitch, and then releasing the bend to a pitch other than the original unbent note. Again, these all respond well to slowing down and paying attention to the start, peak, and trough of the bend, then repeating until accurate bends become a habit while continuing to monitor the accuracy of peaks and troughs. Then speed up as improvements in muscle memory permit.

4 – Pick Hold & Orientation for Single Notes: the pick should be located between the pad of the thumb and the side of the forefinger, and the wrist should be relaxed such that the pick makes roughly a 30-45 degree angle to the strings. Then play with the base of the hand parallel to the strings, with a sharp but relaxed bump of the wrist to make the pick stroke. While this is physiologically the easiest, most comfortable way to hold and maneuver the pick, we tend to bring a lot of hangover from our handwriting habits into picking. This results in all manner of difficulties, such as bringing the middle finger into the pick hold, trying to pick from the far side of the hand (as with writing), and all manner of wasteful sweeping and swooshing motions where the job requires only a straightforward 1/4 inch arc of the pick. These handwriting habits are hard to break, but it is possible, and essential for fast and accurate picking. While practicing scales, pay attention to these details and force your pick hand to comply until it becomes a habit.

5 – Pick Hold & Orientation for Strumming: the pick hold is the same as for single notes. However, the pick stroke for strumming should come from the elbow, with the pick making a straight line across the strings. For the best tone we need light contact with the strings and a fast moving pick coming from a controlled flick of the wrist. Common problems with strumming are locking the wrist and then plowing harshly through the strings, trying to make an arc from the wrist rather then the elbow, and playing an arch or angle rather than a straight line parallel to the strings. Pay attention to these details for a smooth, chime-y, shimmering tone from the strings while strumming.

6 – Excess Tension: this is a universal problem among beginner and even intermediate level guitarists. Playing with too much muscular power results in pressing fretted notes too hard, often bending them out of tune. A heavy handed pick attack results in notes and chords that sound harsh. Excessive muscular tension is an automatic nervous system response to physical challenge arising from our instinctive “fight or flight” mechanism. While this response is very useful when we encounter a bear in the woods, it is a disaster to our guitar technique. Playing guitar is a dance, not a fight. We must play with finesse, not power, if we want our guitars to yield up pleasing sounds in response to our manipulation. All of the problems above are at least partially a result of playing with excessive muscular tension. You can counter the fight or flight response with deliberate focused attention on the state of muscular tension in your hands, arms, and shoulders while practicing scales and chord rhythms. Make it a habit to play with as little muscular tension as possible.
Finally, be sure to practice as often as possible! Learning guitar is all about memory in terms of both mental recall and physical muscle control. Every day that you do not practice you lose a bit of recall and muscle memory. That is just the way the human machine functions and there is not much we can do about it. Therefore, it is best to practice every day. This is not feasible for many hobbyists. In this case, make it a point to practice more days than not … at least five days a week.
Pay attention to the details to ensure that your practice routine is leading to progress rather than frustration!

 

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

Keys to Creativity

By Chad Crawford, Guitar Instructor Palmetto Music Institute 

Among the challenges we face as developing guitar players, cultivating a sense of artistic creativity may seem among the most formidable. Many assume that creativity is a mysterious insight arising from the recesses of the fortunately gifted minds of a select few. In fact, creativity is not a mystery. As with all things musical it responds to focused effort to cultivate it.

So how do you get from having “no creativity” to the point of being able to write songs and play improvisational solos?

First let us address the occasional Mozart who shows up with tremendous innate musical ability. There is indeed a phenomenon of abundant natural talent, but for most musicians, other artists, engineers, inventors, writers, etc., natural talent is not in fact the key to creativity. So the Mozart’s are irrelevant in terms of understanding how a person of typical native ability can develop creative prowess. Forget about natural talent, and most importantly don’t fall for the common misconception that creativity is something that you either have or do not have as a result of inheritance.

Now let us consider what creativity actually is. Is it really assembling something out of nothing in a mysterious seizure of inspiration from quarters unknown? No! Even Mozart had to sit with paper and pen and work his inspirations into orderly, flowing pitch and time relationships. Consider this quote from prolific inventor Thomas Edison, whose record on creativity speaks for itself: “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”.

Creativity is neither an unknowable mystery, an accident, nor a fleeting peek into the ethereal mists. It is rather a predictable result of a process involving mastery of the fundamental elements of an endeavor, and then applying those fundamentals in such a way as to generate beauty of function and form. Notice that I did not say anything about creating something from nothing, or even something totally new. Creativity does not mean creating something from nothing. It means assembling the known into that which effectively solves problems or manifests beauty. It is well within the reach of anyone willing to apply themselves to the process.

Now let us consider how this applies to music, and specifically to guitar. Music is fundamentally two objective phenomenon: pitch relationships and time relationships. Musicians assemble these relationships in such a way as to create the more subjective phenomenon of an emotionally satisfying flow of tension and release. This does not require the creation of anything new, but rather a well developed awareness of how pitch and time relationships work together to create a satisfying flow of tension and release.

So let’s break it down now even more specifically to the things we need to have mastery over in order to make music that satisfies us and our intended audience.

1. Know your notes on the fretboard – everything we do as musicians involves assembling notes in melody (one after another) or harmony (in unison, such as a chord or double stop) with reference to a tonal center (key). If you do not know the notes then you are limited to playing by patterns or by ear. While playing by patterns and by ear are useful tools, if you wish to cultivate maximum creativity then you need to allow yourself as many options as possible. If you can visualize the letter names of the notes you are playing then it is much easier to choose resolving notes for phrases, or make useful alterations to chords to achieve just the right shade of mood.

2. Know the names of the notes in the Major Keys – the Major Scale is the starting point for all we do. Everything else is an alteration of some sort to a Major Scale. If you know the names of the notes in the key you are playing, and can also see them as you play them on the fretboard, these together will give you a great deal of power to achieve a desired musical effect without having to always guess your way through things with experimentation.

3. Understand Intervals – intervals are the building blocks of the pitch aspect of music. A thorough understanding of intervals will allow you to know what effect a note is going to have before you play it. If you know your intervals then you will be able to create musical effects at will, alter scales and chords to create precise shades of emotion, and transfer musical ideas from one key to another with ease.

4. Understand the effects of the basic divisions of the beat – along with pitch relationships, relative timing between pitch events is one of the fundamental components of music. A good set of timing relationships by itself is very powerful (think of a powerful drum intro that sets the mood for a song). If you understand the basic divisions of the beat and how to modify them to tastes then you can create strong shades of mood at will.

5. Understand scale harmonization – knowing how to translate a particular scale into chord sequences will enable you to assemble pleasing chord progressions in a matter of moments. Knowing the chords in the key and the notes in the chords will also give you a lot of useful options for resolving solo phrases.

6. Listen to a lot of music – musical inspiration is often a residual effect of exposure to other music. Saturate your creative muse with immersion into a wide variety of music, and pay attention to the individual details such as the vocals, drums, and bass. In doing so you will cultivate a deeper intuitive understanding of music, much as a child learns to speak by regular exposure to speech.

7. Start from the known – creativity is often a matter of slight alterations to common ideas. Learn the signature licks, chord types and sequences, and rhythmic ideas of the masters of your preferred style. Then experiment with alterations until you uncover ideas that express what you wish.

8. Constantly refine your technique – if you have ever wondered how an accomplished guitarist can play something very simple and yet have it sound very beautiful and powerful, the trick is often in the technique. What many experience as a “lack of creativity” is in fact a lack of technique refinement that will make an otherwise great idea sound lifeless or even just plain bad. Technique development is not just a matter of mere repetition. It is essential to pay attention to the quality of sound (a.k.a. “tone”) during technique development practice. Don’t rush through technique exercises with the goal of merely getting them over with as quickly as possible. Listen carefully to the small details. Strive to improve the quality of sound resulting from each pick stroke.

If you are breathing then you have creative potential. If you cultivate the appropriate knowledge, technique, and persistence then you can be sure that your creative muse will show itself. Get to work!

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

 

Realistic Measures of Progress

By Chad Crawford, Guitar Instructor, Palmetto Music Institute

 

Learning to play an instrument well is a process involving study, memorization, repetition, and refinement, all of which happen across time. It is not a matter of giant leaps but rather steady increments of progress. While a good program of instruction combined with a good practice routine yields inevitable results, at times the progress may seem very slow or non-existent. It is easy during these spells to become discouraged and possibly even give up altogether, so it is important to be able to make realistic evaluations of progress. The four steps below will help you to measure your progress realistically.

 

  1. Avoid comparisons – it is not profitable in any way to compare your progress or your current skills to those of others, especially iconic professionals. Regardless of what you may have heard or read, no one achieves a high level of musicianship without sustained effort across a period of years. Aspiring guitarists have widely varying circumstances which lead to widely varying progress rates and skill levels. Additionally, every musician has strengths and weaknesses in various areas such that comparing your current weaknesses to another’s current strengths will leave you with a warped view of how you are doing. The only legitimate and relevant measure of progress is how you are doing today versus how you were doing last month, six months ago, and last year.

 

  1. Excessive concern with mistakes – ideally we all want to play perfectly, and continual effort towards perfecting our music is advisable. However, while learning guitar be cautious about striking a realistic balance between continual progress and reasonable allowance for mistakes and imperfections. These are a perfectly normal part of the process. They key to dealing with them is to not let them completely derail your playing, such as stopping every time you make a mistake. Avoid the temptation to think that mistakes in your playing mean that your music is no good and that you are not making any progress. Even pros make mistakes.

 

  1. Avoid measuring progress by “feel” – few would attempt to measure a distance of one foot by solely considering how they feel about how long one foot is. Rather, most would simply apply a tape measure to the job. Contrarily, many attempt to measure their progress as musicians by how they feel about their playing at the moment. This is of course completely unrealistic, but it is also a common human response to a long term process. Preoccupation with results can be wearisome if we are working towards a wildly fluctuating target such as our feelings. If your feelings about your progress are at odds with objective measures of progress then recognize the feelings as irrelevant and put them aside.

 

  1. Utilize objective measures of progress – It is an inevitable aspect of human nature that we tend toward looking at the negative side of things. This tendency is magnified when working our way through a long term endeavor such as learning music. Counter this by using an objective standard such as a practice schedule cataloging effort toward various knowledge and skills relevant to your playing goals. Then you will be able to see plainly without the cloud of fickle feelings and negativity when you are in fact making real progress.

 

Remember, the only real and relevant measure of progress is measuring your past knowledge and technique against your present knowledge and technique.

 

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

9 Not-So-Easy Steps to Guitar Mastery

By Chad Crawford, Guitar Instructor, Palmetto Music Institute

1. Identify your goals – It is important at the outset of your musical endeavors, or if you are an intermediate player who has hit “the wall” then right now is the time for you, to determine exactly what it is you wish to accomplish. If you look around at the community of guitar players you will observe that most of the iconic players are known for one particular narrow range of musical style. By focusing on one narrow specialty they were able to focus on developing the technique and knowledge pertinent to that specialty to a very high level. It is not necessary and not wise to attempt to master all styles of music, especially so for a hobbyist who is necessarily under time constraints. Determine what kind of music you most want to play and identify the technique and knowledge you need for that style. Then don’t squander precious time on things that do not apply to your goal. You can branch out later, but trying to tackle the whole field of musical endeavor from the outset is a sure plan for catastrophic frustration.

2. Listen to the music you enjoy – For some rare, unusually gifted musicians most of their musical inspiration seems to come from some secret well-spring within themselves. If you are one of these you would have known it before you were able to read, so if you are reading this then odds are you should not waste time trying to bypass the route most of us have to take to musical creativity: learning from those who have gone before. Identify those guitarists who you most enjoy listening to and wish to sound similar to, and spend plenty of time just listening to their songs. This will inspire you to practice, awaken your own creativity, and sharpen your discernment of pitch and time relationships.

3. Work with a good teacher – people who do not know much about making music commonly believe that music is simply an outgrowth of the personality, and so polluting the muse with organization and technical ideas is a sort of poison. That sort of thinking is why these people are not musicians, or not very good ones. For maximum results in the shortest possible time work with an expert coach who knows how to help you refine your goals, steer you toward the appropriate tools, and eliminate common useless side roads and pitfalls.

4. Master the basics – we all covet advanced playing skills and the accompanying freedom of expression. However, we don’t climb mountains by jumping from the valley straight to the peak. Rather we climb up one step at a time until we reach the peak. Trying to start out with guitar by tackling advanced songs from master guitarists is a sure path to overwhelming frustration and poor overall skills. Start with the basics, and practice them to the point that they come automatically. Then start working on the advanced stuff.

5. Practice well – We have all heard that the key to musical mastery is, “Practice, practice, practice.” While that apt cliche is indeed as true with music as it is with any realm of human endeavor, it fails to answer some very important questions: what to practice and how to practice. If you wish to become a great or even just a good musician, you should approach practice as a labor of love, with emphasis on labor. Practice should be an organized effort to achieve clearly defined goals, rather than another session of doodling with the same bits and pieces of songs from yesterday’s practice session. Random doodling is playing, not productive practice.

Here are some keys to effective practice:

Assemble a practice schedule that addresses knowledge and technique relevant to your goa

Follow the instructions – “playing by feel” is the shortest path to going in circles of self-sabotage with your practice routine. It may carry you for a while, but eventually it will lead to a dead end. Whatever manner of instructional materials you are using, practice according to the instructions. When you have mastered the piece of knowledge or technique at hand you will then be able to incorporate it into that body of things which you can effectively apply by feel.

Cultivate good habits – habit is powerful either on your behalf or to your detriment. Habit will respond to whatever you put into it, either great things or mediocre ones. Utilize good technique, proven methods, and pay attention to details during practice. Make it a habit to push your mind and hands for an increment of improvement during every practice session, rather than habitually accepting yesterday’s routine as today’s standard.

Memorization – memory, both physical and mental, responds best to focus, repetition, relation to the already known, and consistency. This is why it is very important to have an organized practice routine and to practice as often as possible. Shorter daily practices will yield better results than weekend marathon sessions.

6. Creativity – self-expression is impossible when one is utterly distracted by managing the basic facets of musicianship. Beyond that, creativity in music is rarely a matter of coming up with something that no one has ever thought of. That is not possible at this time in history. Creativity is more a matter of taking what is already known and putting a new spin on it, or assembling it in some novel way. Every human being is creative. What most folks consider a lack of creativity is really more a lack of technical skills distracting the attention away from what the internal creative muse is trying to deliver. If you want to experience the fullest of what your internal muse has to offer then get past stumbling over the basics as soon as possible.

7. Managing Frustration – mastering music is a complex long term endeavor, and some frustration with the process is inevitable. Don’t let it become a bigger thing in your mind that it is in reality. Feeling frustrated can not stop your progress in any way, unless you choose let it stop you from practicing. Avoid comparisons to other players. That has no bearing at all on your progress and so it is an utterly useless waste of time. Don’t allow perfectionism to creep into your thinking. Even pros make mistakes, and the music is still quite good despite the occasional mistake. Be sure you are following the instructions. Much undue frustration arises from trying to play by feel rather following the instructions. Allow yourself due credit for what you have accomplished, and measure your progress by objective standards rather than how you feel about your progress. Such feelings are typically unrealistically harsh and often adopt the feeling of frustration itself as a measure of progress, or lack thereof. Feeling frustrated has no bearing whatsoever on the objective reality of your progress, so don’t let your mind sabotage you with such tricks.

8. Managing Stage Fright – psychologists identify a phenomenon that occurs when we are trying to perform any kind of challenging task under direct observation. They call it “performance anxiety”. We musicians usually refer to it as “stage fright”. It is one of the most challenging aspects of music, but like all things musical it will respond to strategic efforts to bring it under control. Stage fright is a lower-level instinctive response to stress such that our bodies gear up to respond with vigorous action. Since we need to be relaxed and focused to perform music well, it is detrimental and even crippling to our musical abilities. However, as powerful as this instinct is we can learn to suppress it with practice. And that brings us to step 9 …

9. Play with others – music is ultimately a means of communication, and as such it is rather pointless to do it at all if we are not going to share it with others, kind of like learning a second language with no intent other than continually practicing it alone in front of a mirror. Playing with others is not only fulfilling but also helps identify weaknesses in our knowledge and technique for further study, allows us an opportunity to learn from others, and gives us experience in managing stage fright. It is also important in a general sense to include a social aspect to our experience of learning music, both in regards to celebrating our successes and sharing the burdens of the process. As soon as you can play basic chord rhythms you should seek opportunities to play with other musicians. If you have no musically inclined friends, look online into the local fellowship communities such as Meetup where you can find amateur jam sessions that allow for folks with moderate skills to participate in a group setting.

Mastering music is not easy, but it is possible even for the hobbyist with time constraints. Practice wisely and well, be patient, and never give up!

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

Managing Musical Frustration

By Chad Crawford, PMI Guitar Instructor

The most significant barrier to eventual success with the guitar is not talent, time constraints, or the quality of a given program of instruction. It is rather this: giving up! There are many reasons why folks give up on a particular course of study, but we see that over time there is a short list that covers most aspiring guitarists who drop out. Of all the motivation killers that assail aspiring guitarists, frustration is the most deadly. Many is the unfortunate guitar gathering dust in the corner due to the catastrophic frustration of a promising student. Let’s take a look at how folks reach such a high level of frustration that they give up, and see if we can find solutions to ease the pain down to manageable levels.

It is very important for every aspiring guitarist to recognize that we all grapple with frustration as we strive to improve our skills. This is a normal part of the process.

Defining the Problem

Let us start by considering what frustration is. It is a feeling of discomfort that arises when we feel what we want is being thwarted. With guitar in particular, we can get very frustrated over three things.

  1.  We are trying to improve on a certain skill or set of skills, and we do not feel we are making any progress despite persistent commitment of time and effort.
  2.  We feel that others are making faster progress and begin to question our “talent” for guitar.
  3. We compare ourselves to those who are more advanced than us and doubt that we could ever play at that level. Let’s discuss these individually and apply a dose of reality to counter the feeling of frustration.

 

Examining the Details

“I am not making any progress.” As a teacher, I can tell you that this is only true for people who are not studying and practicing. Anyone who is making an effort to improve is improving to some degree. I have students with a wide range of commitment levels, and even the ones who practice very little or none outside of my studio still make some progress over time. For those who genuinely follow my practice recommendations, they improve significantly faster than those who do not. As with anything, you will get out of it what you put into it.

Progress comes in increments, and we often do not see the progress because we wrongly measure our progress by how we feel about our playing. If last week it felt like we were not playing like we wanted to play, and this week it feels the same way, then we conclude we must not be making any progress. However, our feelings during the process of mastering skills are not a good measuring line by which to judge our progress. There are several more realistic ways to measure progress: metronome drills, comparison to what we were able to do six months ago, and frank feedback from a teacher or other ongoing observer. If you are measuring your progress by how frustrated or not frustrated you feel about your playing, you are setting yourself up in a Catch 22 spiral into quitting. So … stop doing that.

It is important to make note here about the phenomenon of “plateaus”. For most of us, including myself, a chart of progress would not show a straight upward sloping line. Rather it would show a squiggly line of ups and downs with a general trend upwards. On that line there will be flat spots … plateaus where it seems we have come to an end of our ability to advance any further. Sometimes these spots can be tenacious, lasting for months. These plateaus can definitely be a motivation killer, especially for intermediate level players who know that they know what to practice and how to practice it. Then we back off our practice routine, which causes our skills to fall off, reinforcing the notion that we have reached the end of our “talent”. Our thinking becomes a proverbial self-fulfilling prophecy, and next thing we know the guitar is in the corner serving as an expensive hangar for clothes that did not make it all the way to the closet. The important thing here is to be aware that these plateaus are coming so that when it hits you know it is just a passing stage. If you persist through this, the progress will show on the other side of the plateau.

“It seems to me that my abilities or progress rates are significantly below that of others.” There are a number of reasons why one may feel this way. It may be true, in which case you may need to make some informed changes to your approach, or increase the amount of time you are investing in practice. It may be that it is untrue in that you are making comparisons that are inaccurate or incomplete. For example, let’s say two students start at the same time, and after some period of time student 1 is more proficient in applying scales to creating soulful solos. Student 2 may look at this and think he is not doing well. However, it may simply be that Student 2 is more interested in playing chord rhythms with even flow and good timing, and so has spent more time on that skill, and is in fact better at it than student 1.

Assuming you are engaged in an effective practice routine, what someone else is doing is completely irrelevant to your goals. I don’t mind telling you that I am not the most naturally talented guitarist in my circle of musician friends, and I have observed many others over many years who make faster progress than I do. I have also observed many of those more “talented” guitarists quit, whereas I did not quit despite periods of frustration. Their seemingly superior natural abilities (which actually probably had more to do with greater practice time) lost way to my persistence. Now I can play rings around many of those folks. Not that I am interested in competing with anyone. The point is, their abilities did not intimidate me into catastrophic frustration, but merely served to demonstrate to me what could be done with the guitar if I was willing to do the work.

“I am not able to play like (insert name of your guitar hero here).” I will share a personal story here that illustrates the point I wish to make. Back in my “bedroom warrior” days, I had a couple of friends who I used to jam with routinely. Back then I knew only a half dozen open chords and some popular power chord riffs. It so happened that one of my friends and I were hanging out on one occasion and he started giving me a hard time about his superior guitar skills. He was just cutting up, but in my youthful pride I did not like it. It was mid summer, and I rashly challenged him to a guitar duel around Christmas. In desperation, I went to a local guitar shop and picked out a book on music theory (just by blind luck, it happened to be a really good one). After digging a bit, I figured out that the Minor Pentatonic scale was the one I needed to play rock solos. So I bared down on that scale for six months. Come Christmas time, my friend was quite surprised when I unleashed a barrage of Minor Pentatonic riffage on him in front of our “judge” (another mutual friend). I won the contest. The moral of the story is, I could have achieved that level of skill years earlier if I had just made the effort. That was an important lesson for me. It changed my whole perspective on guitar, as I had believed I had little “natural talent” and would never play as well as my friends. I realized I had been in possession of the potential all along. I just needed to do the work to make the potential a reality. Now I am able to play advanced instrumental pieces from the guitar heroes of my youth. The frustration that accompanies wrestling with new skills never goes away completely, but it does not have to be an insurmountable barrier to success. Continuing on despite feelings of frustration is simply a part of the work that we must all do to succeed.

Conclusion

Are you struggling with catastrophic frustration? The kind that makes you feel despondent when you think about picking up your guitar? I have also felt that way at times, as do all aspiring musicians. There are solutions that will get you back on a path of progress toward your goals. Find a good teacher with a solid program and students who can actually play. Set up a good practice routine, follow instructions, believe in yourself, and be patient. If you do these things, your success as a guitar player is inevitable. Don’t give up!

 

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