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Why Developing Your Strumming Hand Is Vital To Becoming a Good Guitar Player

No matter what instrument you play, rhythm and timing is vital to becoming good at music, especially if you want to play music with others. That is a why I believe it is truly important that guitarist focus on the fundamentals of rhythm and timing right from the get go. If you are already playing guitar, you have probably noticed that strumming is controlled by your dominant hand (right if you are a righty, left if you are a lefty). In the beginning, strumming can seem very foreign and awkward, but, over time you can develop your hand to the point where it had a mind of its own. Honestly! Imagine being able to strum along to a song without even having to think about it. Well that is totally possible.

All you have to do is take the right steps towards building up the muscle memory in your strumming hand. I have developed a step-by-step approach that has helped my students get rocking and rolling with their strumming hand very quickly. Usually in a matter of weeks. Here is an outline of the process I use:

  1. Focus on timing right from the get go

I put students on a metronome as soon as possible. This not only helps them track their progress, it helps them start to build timing skills. I will often play along with students so that they can work off my timing like they would have to do in a real life band setting.

  1. Start small

I start by focusing on whole note, half note and quarter note strumming patterns to develop coordination and build confidence in their abilities to strum along with various strumming patterns. We start by using one chord and then add chord progressions to the strums. You can see in the examples below that rhythm is kept very simple in the beginning.

As a guitar teacher, I know it is very important to build confidence in the beginning stages of learning the guitar. I have yet to meet a student I couldn’t help master basic rhythms skills in a relatively short amount of time.

  1. Build upon your foundation

Once students have mastered the basics and built a foundation for timing in their strumming hand, we then build upon that foundation by adding more complex strumming patterns that include up strums and syncopated rhythms.

The timing of up strums can be difficult for some students and is why it is essential for you to have a good foundation before progressing to the next level.

Syncopated rhythms are when you do not have a down strum on the down beat, meaning there may not be a down strum on the 1, 2, 3 or 4 count. This can really throw students for a loop and, again, is why I recommend getting a good foundation for non-syncopated eighth note strumming before progressing to syncopated rhythms.

Example of non-syncopated eighth note rhythms:

Example of syncopated eighth note rhythms:

   

                                                                       

  1. Mix things up

There are some songs that use the same strumming pattern for the entire song, but many songs switch between rhythms quite frequently. When learning songs with students, I usually keep them on one strumming pattern for simplicity and ease of playing. But, as I notice a student’s strumming hand relaxing and become more adapted to the different strumming patterns, we will start mixing up strumming patterns. Maybe the verse is 1 or 2 strumming patterns and the chorus is something completely different. We work on the skills required to fluidly move from one strumming pattern right into the next without pausing or stopping. I find that students who have moved through my strumming system don’t have much trouble applying this skill because in the foundational stages I build in this type of practice without them even noticing.

By the time students are done with the first 3 phases of my strumming program they can:

  • Count and play along in time
  • Read basic rhythm patterns
  • Know the different between quarter and eighth note strumming
  • Understand the difference between 3/4 and 4/4 time
  • Change chords while maintaining rhythm
  • Switch between rhythm patterns without hesitation
  • Apply strumming patterns to the songs they love
  • Have more fun with their guitar and feel confident in their abilities

I have yet to have a student fail to learn rhythm while using my step-by-step rhythm system. People with no music experience were amazed that they could actually read music, understand it and play along to it.

Use this method when building your rhythm skills and I guarantee you will see success. Have patience and don’t rush any part of the learning process. Jumping ahead before you are ready can cause frustration and it why I set speed goals that must be hit before we move on to the next stage in the process.

About The Author:

Lauren Bateman is a successful guitar teacher and voice coach living just outside of Boston. She owns and operates two successful music schools and enjoy working with beginner guitar students and rock vocalists. Lauren was told at a young age that maybe music wasn’t her thing. This is why she is passionate about making music accessible to those who never thought playing music was possible or were told they could not do it. You can learn more about Lauren via her website www.laurenbateman.com or her music school at www.lbmusicschool.com

Reviewing Review

By Chad Crawford, PMI Guitar Insrtuctor

 

Retention of knowledge and technique is high on the list of challenges to aspiring guitarists. As with any long term complex undertaking, we can take shorter or longer paths to the same end. While common sense dictates that we take the shorter path, there are a number of ways to step off the shortest path without realizing it. For maximum results in the shortest possible time we need to be aware of these potential pitfalls and make every effort to avoid them.

Repetition is the obvious bedrock of retention, but failure to incorporate other available retention strategies will result in a predictable consequence: review. While review is an essential and unavoidable component of learning, excessive review is counterproductive, frustrating for students and teachers, and inherently robs aspiring musicians of invaluable time that could rather be invested in growth. So our goal should be to maximize every available retention opportunity in each lesson and practice session.

Beyond the obvious need for repetition, retention is a function of a combination of predictable and controllable factors, such that the aspiring guitarist can choose (or not!) to greatly enhance progress rates by consistently implementing a few simple but powerful strategies. Though these may seem like common sense, I routinely observe generally intelligent, talented, and ambitious students slipping in these elements of retention, so do not assume that you can’t benefit from a self-check in these details. The very core of the problem is that these things operate below our conscious view if we do not intentionally choose to give them attention.

  1. Paying attention to instructions – it is very easy to allow the mind to wander off in the middle of an explanation, then practice something wrong all week. In some cases I have seen students so excited about learning something new that in the middle of my demonstration they take off trying to figure out what I am playing by ear rather than concentrating on the demo, which of course defeats the purpose of the demo. While I commend the passion about learning new things, this is an obvious example of not paying attention to the instructions, and the results are predictable – we have to go over it again. Whether your instruction method be a book, video, or personal one-on-one lessons, be assured that you will get better results by controlling the impulse to take off playing as soon as you have the first hint of where to put your fingers, and instead getting your mind around the complete explanation before attempting to apply it.
  1. Following the instructions – assuming you have paid attention to the instructions and thus have a sufficient understanding of what to do, the next step is to apply the instructions. Certain details of optimum physical technique are often at conflict with our natural inclination toward doing what feels easiest for us at the moment. While few would argue whether or not following the instructions is important, some aspects of our motor skills operate at a subconscious level. While attempting scale exercises for instance, we must manage a number of things simultaneously such as note location, timing, coordination of the picking and fretting hands, and management of excess muscular tension. It is very easy in this kind of multi-tasking situation to allow the fingers to revert to auto-pilot while we monitor other details, and then we slip into repeating poor physical technique and allow it to become a self-defeating habit. It is very hard to break ingrained poor physical technique habits. Do not allow this to happen. Follow the instructions!
  1. Maintaining focus – Repetition is a potentially powerful aid to retention, but repetition without deliberate focus on details can actually cultivate less than optimal mental and physical habits and thus hinder progress. It is important to understand that deliberate focus is not the default mode of the human mind. Our tendency is to allow the attention to wander off, and thus sustained focus on one thing or group of things requires some conscious effort. Additionally, there may be no feeling of increased progress while making the extra effort to stay focused, and so there may be no immediate sense of reward in exchange for the extra effort. However, both science and common experience reveal that all types of memory, including muscle memory, achieve their peak power in response to sustained focused attention. So for maximum retention choose to stay focused during your practice!
  1. Context development – Memory responds well to organization. It is therefore important to recognize at the outset of our musical endeavors, or as soon thereafter as possible, that all of music is one total phenomenon rather than a host of tiny parts to remember separately. For example, our big three pitch relationship tools are chords, scales, and arpeggios. While we study these individually for clarity, they are in fact all a single scale or defined subset of the scale. If we recognize a major chord or arpeggio as a subset of intervals from the major scale then it is easier to see the overlap between the chord tones and potential resolving notes from the major scale, major pentatonic scale, or a major arpeggio. If additionally we can look at the fretboard and simultaneously visualize a major scale, a corresponding major chord and inversions, and the major arpeggio, all superimposed over one another, then it is relatively easy to move between playing a chord and applying a fill or solo from the major scale or arpeggio. Likewise, if we can perceive a given rhythm as a subset of divisions of the main beat then it is relatively easy to feel out the main beat and then fill in the divisions. So it is very helpful to retention always be plugging bits of new information into the scheme of the overall context.
  1. Choose the high road – with life in general we often refer to taking the high road as a colloquialism for doing the right thing. I am appropriating this idea for application to the study of music, and I mean it in this way: when you are practicing guitar and you run into a choice between doing the less comfortable but more beneficial thing or the more comfortable thing, do the less comfortable thing. For example, when practicing phrasing with a backing track it is very easy to just settle into playing positions or licks you are already comfortable with rather than experimenting with unknown territory. Likewise, some things on your practice schedule will be more interesting or enjoyable than other things, and it is very tempting in the privacy of your practice space to take the easy low road by minimizing or altogether avoiding the more challenging parts of your practice routine. This is how people stop progressing and get into ruts. Don’t let it happen. When you have something new to work on and it is harder to do relative to just doing further repetitions of things you already know, take the high road by investing yourself in the new material. Half effort will not yield half results. It will yield no results, and you will have to keep going back and reviewing this material until you finally get sick of review and invest the effort you could have in the beginning.

You don’t have time to waste on this cycle of stagnation. Save yourself the trouble and frustration, and invest the necessary effort up front. You will proceed must faster through practicing and will get on sooner with actually playing.

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

Woodshedding vs. Consistency

By Chad Crawford, PMI Guitar Instructor

In earlier times wayward kids were subject to a form of corrective discipline referred to as “woodshedding”. The parent would take the straying kid out to the woodshed for private application of a paddle or belt to the straying kid’s hind quarters. The practice was universal such that over time the term “woodshedding” came to be used as a colloquialism to refer to all manner of discipline, including the self-discipline involved in mastering a skill through practice. Musicians picked up the term to refer to extended sessions of private practice – sometimes literally in a woodshed for privacy.

The woodshed ultimately fell to the wayside of history with the rise of electricity, but the term woodshedding has stuck with musicians as a way to refer to intense efforts toward improvement through private practice. For us guitarists the idea is to get in a place where we can be free from the pressure of others hearing our flaws and mistakes, the distractions of people, phones, televisions, etc., and focus intently on improving our mastery of technique, improvisation, or details of specific songs.

If you read about or watch documentaries about highly acclaimed musicians you can’t miss the importance they place on practice toward achieving their goals. In many cases you will hear stories of spending nights and weekends daily for years to develop their impressive skills.  If you are a hobbyist with limited time to practice you may come to the discouraging conclusion that routine woodshedding is essential to developing satisfying musical skills that you can be proud of sharing with others.

Make no mistake: the more time you spend engaging in effective practice, the better you will get. However, it is quite realistic to expect to achieve a satisfying level of functional musicianship without practicing five hours a day every day of the week. For a hobbyist musician, a half hour to an hour of effective, goal-oriented practice per day for five days a week will deliver meaningful results. While there are a number of elements to effective practice, the object of our focus for this article is the importance of consistency.

I often observe students of guitar setting aside my recommendations to cover a broad range of materials in every practice session and instead focusing on one element that they have become temporarily absorbed with. They will then woodshed this one item, and then everything else they have been building falls to the wayside. Then we have to go down the deadly road that sucks the ambition out of the most enthusiastic students of music: review.

When you are learning the fundamentals of music, woodshedding is NOT a productive substitute for consistency. Not only does it rob you of costly skills in the areas that you are neglecting to practice, it also doesn’t work well for the one area that you have focused on. It may deliver a temporary sense of satisfaction in that over a few days of woodshedding one thing you may see a visible improvement in that one thing, but here is the dirty secret about woodshedding: the gains disappear as soon as you stop woodshedding that one thing.

You can easily perceive this for yourself by considering the equivalent of woodshedding in the academic world: cramming. We have all been through the experience of neglecting consistent homework and then trying to intensely study in preparation for a test. Does it work? Yes, many times you can pass the test with a lot of short notice intense study. However, did you ever go back and take a test on the same material a week later? How do you think you would have done?

If you are studying music it is most likely not something that is being forced on you, so you should not be reluctant to do your “homework”, nor should you be eager to put behind the most recent material you studied. If you are … maybe music is not the right thing for you, or maybe you are pursuing skills in a style that is not the best fit your inner muse. Assuming you are passionate about learning music, you should logically wish to pursue a course that will allow you to retain hard won gains, rather than constantly cramming for a test (such as your next lesson) and then forgetting. It is a simple fact of human memory, both cognitive and physical (i.e. muscle memory), that repetition is the key to long term retention. So you should pursue a practice routine that includes consistent repetition of the knowledge and skills you need to achieve your short to medium term musical goals. While you may not see the more immediately satisfying visible gains of woodshedding one area, you will continually improve your musicianship by increments each day, and medium to long term you will be a much more potent musician for it.

It is important to understand that consistency does not mean that you will be ever stuck practicing everything you have ever learned. There will come a time for instance when you can perform your basic chords with ease, such that you do not have to practice them specifically and routinely any more. It is the same with scales and phrasing, and general knowledge. Once you have reached a particular goal, you replace it with something you can’t do yet and get to work consistently practicing that new thing until it also becomes habitual.

And finally, let us consider the real and practical value of strategic woodshedding. If you are performing publicly then what you need for a given performance (such as my application group classes) is a high level of fluency in those things you will be performing for that one occasion. Then it makes sense to woodshed the specific things required for that presentation. Then after the presentation you go back to a more generalized practice routine until a few days before your next public performance. Likewise, if you join a band and suddenly need to learn a list of new songs, you may need to get up to speed on those songs very quickly. So you would woodshed the set list as much as possible before your first group practice, then make practicing though the set list a part of your regular practice routine.

If you are situated such that you have time to woodshed everything on your highly effective practice schedule, then by all means go for it and we will look forward to seeing you on the Billboard charts soon. However, if this is not you then don’t despair. The proverbial tortoise wins the race most of the time. Consistency is the key!

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

3 Answers for Overwhelm

By Chad Crawford, PMI Guitar Instructor

If you are new to guitar, or especially if you have been playing for a while then you may already be acquainted with the vaguely uncomfortable feeling that there is a long road ahead and you are not sure you can see the destination. If you have attempted any kind of lesson program you have surely observed that there does not seem to be any one clear thing or few things that you can do to get the results you seek. Maybe you have sensed that there are a LOT of things you need to accomplish. If you are currently involved in a program of instruction, you may have a pile of those things on your desk right now.

As with other impediments to eventual success with music, this feeling is quite normal. Once you get deep enough into this to realize how much is involved with fluent guitar playing, it is easy to become awed by the amount of information to learn and tasks to work through. You may then conclude something like this … “I am not able to do this”, or “I could possibly do this, but I do not have the time”. Then the next logical step is, of course … giving up.

So let’s consider how we get stuck in this trap and then how we can avoid it, or work around it. The first thing we need to know about overwhelm is this – it is a state of mind, not an objective reality. Particularly, it is a feeling … a feeling that we are not up to the job ahead of us. It is also a false feeling. Unfortunately, there is enough of reality inspiring this feeling that it may be difficult to see the falsehood in it. Let’s put on our reality glasses and take another look at this self-defeating false feeling of doom.

1. Know The Facts: The first thing we need to do is address the truth – that learning to play an instrument well is a big task. Although I am a proponent of “positive thinking” to a reasonable extent, a positive attitude does not change the immediate reality of things. We can sit all day and think positive thoughts about being a great musician. Other than a fleeting feeling of self-satisfaction, this will accomplish nothing unless we allow this positive framework to motivate sustained action toward a specific goal. A positive outlook combined with focused action will indeed yield impressive results, possibly far beyond what we would have thought ahead of time. So, let’s start by rejecting the sense of doom and replacing it with a positive outlook that we are indeed potentially capable musicians. Let us also combine that mental framework with the willingness to do some work toward our goals.

2. Formulate a Properly Balanced Perspective: Second, let’s narrow down our goals to something realistic. Let us not go to either extreme. One extreme might be what I call the “moon child”. In other words, shooting for the moon. Example, “I’m 38 years old, know three chords, work sixty hours a week, have a wife and three kids, and I want to play like Eddie Van Halen within 6 months of dusting off my old high school guitar”. Here is another example that I see routinely in my pre-enrollment consultations, “I want to be able to play expertly in any style from classical to progressive rock and everything in between” (have you ever taken note that well known accomplished guitarists only play in one very narrow range of style?) The other extreme might be, “Since I can’t play like Eric Clapton my playing is worthless”. Really? Try telling that to B.B. King – one of the most acclaimed guitarists who has ever lived, who made a long, lucrative career and legacy out of simple repetitive blues licks.

So let’s face some facts – some goals are completely off the chart unrealistic, and some goals are simply not appropriate for some persons. On the other hand some folks go to the other extreme and assume that ANY goal is beyond their reach. Here is the balance of truth in the middle of the extremes – there is plenty of fun to be had with guitar at skill levels within the reach of the average person. If you set a goal that is out of proportion to the amount of time you can and will invest into guitar, this is a set-up from day one for overwhelm. If you give in to overwhelm at the slightest appearance of difficulty, you are robbing yourself and others of the great satisfaction to yourself and others that comes from you expressing yourself well with an instrument. Let’s avoid both extremes. Balance is the key.

3. Set Effective Goals: So what is a realistic goal? That is of course going to vary greatly from person to person according to any number of factors. We can look here at some of the common factors. It is very important to pick a range of style to focus on. For instance, classical guitar is a very different approach to guitar than rock. It is unlikely that anyone, and particularly a hobbyist, is going to achieve great things in both of these styles. Even professional musicians tend to focus on one style. So pick the one you like most – the one that has the most songs that you enjoy hearing. In doing so you have eliminated a great deal of material that you need to bother with learning.

Now let’s narrow it down some more. For instance, within the Blues style, we have a number of even more specific styles …. Delta Blues (acoustic slide), Chicago Blues (low gain electric guitar), Texas Blues (medium gain electric guitar with a rock flavor). If you want to play Texas Blues, you do not need to master alternate tunings for acoustic slide guitar. So you see, when you narrow down your goal, you eliminate a LOT of material that you would be wasting time to pursue. This does not mean you are permanently eliminating the possibility of playing songs from any other style. Contrarily, learning to play well in one style will undoubtedly leave you potentially much more capable to approach other styles with better results, especially closely related styles such as Blues and Rock.

Ok, so we have narrowed things down to where we can see some outer limits to what we have to accomplish to reach our goal. There is still a lot left to do. So how do we look at all this and avoid a sense of doom? Very simple. There is an old adage I am fond of repeating to my clients: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time! Rather than look at a whole body of knowledge and tasks with awe and overwhelm, we break the project into parts that we can manage and set up a plan to start building up fluency in each of a number of targeted areas.

If you have been at this for a while you have probably accumulated a lot of material and it becomes practically impossible to study all of it routinely. So what do you do? You have to look at your short term goals and see what material will help you reach those goals. If you have material that is not pertinent to your short term goals, set it aside for now and focus on things that are directly relevant to the closest goals. For instance, if your near-term goal is the ability to play pop rock solos, you do not need to practice exotic scales and diminished arpeggios. Focus on pentatonic scales, embellishments, and phrasing. The more advanced materials can wait until you have mastered the basic stuff to an extent that you can yield more practice time to exploring new ideas.

Essentially, the problem of overwhelm yields to these things: positive attitude combined with positive action, goal-oriented organization, and targeted elimination of non-essentials. Push aside incapacitating thoughts. Replace them with enthusiastic action. Organize your practice time and materials around your near-term goals. Eliminate (for now) those things that do not contribute to these goals.
Finally, as with all things guitar, practice well and often!

 

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.

A Secret Of Success

By Chad Crawford, PMI Blues Guitar Instructor

Catchy title, eh? Notice I said “A secret”, as opposed to “THE secret”. The truth is, there are many elements that contribute to success in any endeavor. They are not really secrets either, they just seem that way to people who have not perceived them yet. We are going to discuss one “secret” in this article that will be of great value to you as you strive to improve your guitar skills. This will also apply to about anything else you do in life.

I am going to guess that when you saw the title of the article you might have been expecting I was going to provide some kind of short cut that would make it easy to improve your guitar skills in a very short time. Did you? Well, sorry about that. No such luck. About the closest you are going to get to that ideal is “find a great instructor”. Unfortunately there are no easy ways to become a musician. There are only more effective and less effective methods.

If you want a straightforward bottom line about becoming a competent musician, the key concept is WORK. If you are one of these who has believed that it is all about “natural talent” I hope I can dissuade you of that view. I won’t go deep into that topic in this article, but if you want to check it out for yourself you can do some research on some of your favorite musicians and how they got to be great.

Now, if you have been a human being long enough you have probably figured something out: we don’t like work much. Work is hard and boring. We would much rather play, right? As humans we all have an inherent aversion to work known as LAZINESS. If there is any one thing that is most likely to derail your musical aspirations it is laziness. Laziness manifests in many forms, some very obvious and some not so obvious. The obvious ones are such as this, “I would rather watch TV than practice guitar exercises”. The more insidious ones might be along these lines, “I need to practice my harmonic minor scales, but it is more gratifying to just blast away on the Pentatonic Minor I already know, so I will do that for 30 minutes and practice Harmonic Minor for 2 minutes.” Or maybe this, “I know I need to follow my practice schedule but I will ‘warm up’ with my favorite songs first and then work on my practice schedule.” 45 minutes later … you know the routine. Another one, “It seems to me that I can get this piece played easier using my ‘natural’ technique rather than following my evil teacher’s more challenging technique recommendation which requires me to concentrate.” Yet again, “I know I am supposed to repeat this slowly and methodically, but I am going to disregard that and play it as fast as possible and hope that will work better today, even though I know it never has worked better.” The biggest killer of all, “I’m really busy today and one practice session won’t make a difference anyway.” Or how about this, “I really need to practice, but I will instead waste two hours having supper and spending quality time with my family”.

Ok, maybe that last one is a bit too extreme for you who are not REALLY committed just yet! Don’t worry, you don’t have to be that radical to get pretty good on the guitar. The point is that laziness is a deadly enemy to progress. It comes out in many ways and is always on your shoulder, whispering to you – take it easy, go the easier route, find a less challenging way to do this, take a short cut, if I had any talent this would not be hard so I might as well give up, etc.. We must overcome this if we are to succeed. So, you might be thinking the answer is discipline, right? Well, yes. However, laziness is a powerful and deceptive internal adversary and the truth is that most of us do not have the wits or the kind of internal discipline we need to overcome it – by ourselves.

And there in that last phrase is an age-old, very powerful secret of success, utilized by nations, armies, corporate leaders, athletic coaches, and other kinds of team leaders across times, places, and cultures. It is powerful enough to squash the roaring demon of laziness into a pile of goo.

Do you see it yet?

Imagine this. You are on the football team and the coach passes out a sheet at the beginning of the week. On the sheet is the list of all the agonizing physical torture he wants you to inflict on yourself this week. Since he knows you have self-discipline he trusts you to see to this, meeting adjourned, see you next week. You go home and look over the list while you are watching TV and eating donuts. If you are especially self-disciplined you might even memorize the contents of the list. You may even go out and run a half mile until you get winded and it starts hurting your legs. Then you give up. After all it is 90 degrees outside and this is boring, and besides who will know or care if you cheat?

Do you think a football team would get very far with this approach to preparation? No, of course not. That is why you are going to stay at the field with all the rest of the team and torture yourself under the observation of the coach and the peer pressure of the rest of the team.

Hopefully by now you are seeing the principle that I am getting at, but if not, I will spell it out plainly here. The “secret” I am speaking of is COMMUNITY. You may hear it called teamwork or work group or network or some other name, but the basic concept is the same – the most effective way to combat laziness is to be part of a social network where you are inherently held accountable for the results of your work. Inclusion in a social network will provide negative feedback in the form of embarrassment if you fail to perform, and positive feedback in the form of praise and respect when you do perform. In addition, we all tend to have a competitive instinct such that we will almost automatically try to out do the people around us. Furthermore, we have an internal mechanism that feels obligation to meet the expectations of our friends. And again, it is built into us to derive great satisfaction from being part of a special group defined by our unique successes. So we have all these very powerful motivators sitting inside us, ready to do battle on our behalf against our arch-enemy laziness. These are the same motivators that have brought victory to armies, athletic teams, companies, the list goes on and on. These motivators are inert until exposed to a group environment, then they rise up and start kicking down walls!

So you have something to do here. You have all this potential power inside but it is up to you to get it activated. How do you do this? Well, you need to get involved with other musicians. Taking lessons is a great step in the right direction. Tell your family and friends that you are learning to play guitar and you are serious about it and you will not accept less of yourself than success. Try to get a friendly hobby band together if possible, or just hang out and jam as much as you can with other friends who are musicians. If you are in church you can see if they will let you join as a future back-up musician while you are learning, then you sit in on the weekly practice and try to play along. Get involved with a local musical fellowship through MeetUp.com. There are a hundred ways, but you need to do something to get yourself involved in some kind of group setting.

For my actively enrolled students I offer access to a private Internet forum. Internet forums have become explosively popular in the last decade and there are many opportunities for networking this way. However, it will do no good to look over the forums from time to time. You have to get involved. You have to get known in an environment where people are doing the same thing you are doing. You have to engage in friendly competition with people at your same level (you do not have to state this, it will happen automatically. I do not recommend telling people you want to compete with them until you know them really well). You have to let people know what your goals are and what you are doing to get there. You must show interest in their goals and progress and thus build mutual respect and goodwill. It will come back to you many times over.

This attachment to a group is CRITICAL, I can not over-emphasize this. It will keep you going through the many times when the path of progress takes you through spots that are tedious and frustrating. If you decline to get involved socially this way then your chances of succeeding are greatly reduced. Contrarily, when you do connect with a group of musical peers you will not only achieve more but will also enjoy music much more. After all, music is a form of communication. It is rather pointless if you do not share it with others.

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.

Nature vs. Nurture: The Secret to Overcoming Fatal Guitar Technique Flaws.

By Guitar Teacher Chad Crawford

After a couple of decades of teaching guitar and interacting with other teachers and many clients, I can make a number of predictions on what any aspiring guitarist will struggle with and how the various responses to these stumbling blocks will either help or hinder progress. The guitar is a challenging instrument, and there are any number of areas where one might encounter a temporary roadblock. Of these typical areas, there is one I have enumerated in my previous “Top Ten” article that stands out above all others as the number one barrier to progress: not following the instructions.

Allow me to clarify this concept since the phrase alone may seem too broad and actually contrary to your experience. I doubt you have ever openly refused to learn a particular chord, for example, or a basic scale pattern. This is not the sort of thing I mean when I suggest that a significant percentage of guitar students often stumble in implementing course recommendations. It is not a matter of people intentionally side-stepping the instructions. Rather it is that certain aspects of optimum physical technique run contrary to our instincts. Most students tackling a challenge in physical technique tend to unconsciously default back to instincts rather than consistently apply good technique recommendations. For the record, I am guilty of this as much as anyone, although I have improved significantly over the years in applying what the guitarist community has found to be the most effective technique development methods.

Now let me narrow this down to the specifics items that I see over and over. If any of these seem to apply to you, keep in mind that I am not writing about any specific person or experience, but rather my collective experience as a guitar student and teacher. I assure you that although some of these may apply to you, they are universal themes in the guitar community, so don’t feel like I’m singling you out to give you a hard time!

  1. Tickle the strings rather than tackle them.
  2. For playing open or bar chord rhythms, use a wide, fast, and light-contact pick stroke.
  3. For playing individual notes or two-string intervals (fifth chords, double stops) keep the pick hand palm turned into the guitar so that the pick moves parallel to the plane of the strings with a mere flick of the wrist.
  4. Apply no more pressure to the strings/frets than necessary to sound out a clear note.
  5. Avoid grasping the guitar neck with the palm and thumb as if it were a baseball bat.
  6. Use your elbow to change the working range of your pick – not your wrist or your shoulder.
  7. When changing to an upcoming chord, avoid chopping off the last beat of the previous chord by releasing pressure too early.
  8. Unless you are practicing certain exercises specifically intended to develop speed, do not practice at a tempo faster than you can play with good note articulation and two-hand synchronization.
  9. When learning a new rhythm pattern, go slow and consciously count the beats and divisions of the beats, rather than trying to play the rhythm by “feel”. Once you have conscious mastery of the pattern only then should you work on keeping time by feel.

If you have taken lessons with me for any length of time, you will know that I teach these things routinely, so you may wonder why I am taking up a Newsletter column with this routine lesson fare. There is a reason I am emphasizing these things for you: between knowing good technique and doing good technique, there is a subconscious barrier that we all struggle with: instinct. As your teacher, one of the most significant challenges I face in helping you develop your skills is your own instincts. Your basic instincts tend toward moving the fingers as a unit, favoring the index finger, using much more strength than is necessary, and handling the pick as if it is a plow. Your secondary instinct is to do just the opposite of this. For example, when attempting to play scales for the first time, you will note that your fingers want to stay together and mute the string you are trying to pick, so you will then pull your other fingers way back from the fretboard. Then you have to slam the next finger down like a dive bomber in order to stay in time on the next note. This causes subtle delays that cap your top speed at limits far below your potential.

The first step in conquering this barrier is to be aware of these instinctive actions and over-reactions, so that you can be ready to spot them and counter with deliberate focused repetition of a balanced, optimum technique method that cooperates as far as possible with your natural physiology. Then, apply focused attention to repetitions of good technique. Repetition of good technique results in habits, such that good technique becomes increasingly automatic, enabling to you to move between chords and notes accurately with little conscious effort. Here is where the process breaks down: the focused repetition of good technique, and namely, the focus part. Your hands will constantly try to resort back to instinctive positions and motions, even though your conscious mind is well aware of these issues. You must pay close attention to these details of technique when you practice. This can be tedious at times, but the pay off is more than worth the effort!

 

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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