Tag Archives: guitar teacher

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.

Beginner’s Guide to Guitars, Strings, & Picks

If you are new to guitar or even somewhat experienced, you may be overwhelmed by all the options regarding types of guitars, strings, and picks. After you read this brief article you will be an expert on guitar hardware!

There are two basic categories of guitar: acoustic and electric. We will discuss the nature and purposes of each below.

Acoustic Guitars

Acoustic guitars have a large hollow wooden box for a body, with a round hole or some other kind of opening to naturally amplify the sound of the strings. There are two main types of acoustic guitars: classical and folk. The classical guitar, as the name implies, is meant for playing classical style music. You can identify these guitars easily by the presence of three nylon strings which look like clear plastic. The folk guitar uses steel strings, with the larger strings also having a bronze wrap. Folk guitars are typically larger than classical guitars and have a more narrow neck to facilitate chords. Folk guitars are louder and have brighter tone than classical guitars. While either of these type of guitars may come equipped with an option for electronic amplification, we still consider them acoustic guitars.

The dobro or resonator is a specialty acoustic guitar which uses internal metallic plates to amplify the sound of the strings. While it looks much like a standard acoustic guitar, the playing techniques and sound are different enough that many consider the dobro a different instrument from a traditional guitar.

Electric Guitars

Electric guitars come in two main varieties: solid body and hollow body. The hollow body has open chambers in the body with holes, similar to an acoustic guitar, for naturally amplifying the sound of the strings. Despite the opened chambers, they are not nearly as loud as a true acoustic guitar and thus require amplification to be of any practical use. They have a warm (less treble) sound quality which is great for blues, jazz, and other clean (non-distorted) tones. Due to the resonant chambers they tend to present feedback (prominent squealing sound) at moderate amplifier volumes.

The solid body guitars have, as the name implies, a completely solid body section with no open resonant chambers. Some solid bodies have internal resonant chambers with a view toward enhancing sound quality, but these chambers will not be opened to the air so they provide no sound amplification and no feedback problems.

Before we go farther with discussing solid body guitar types, let’s take a moment to consider several very important factors in guitar construction: pickups, neck profile, and frets.

Pickups are coils of wire wrapped around magnets. The magnets generate a magnetic field and the coils pick up variations in the strength of the field through electro-magnetic induction. When we strike a metal guitar string placed within the field of pick up, the string vibration disturbs the field. The coils pick up on the changes in the magnetic field and generate a tiny electronic signal, which we send out to an amplifier through a cable.

There are two main types of guitar pick ups: single coil and humbucker. Single coils have one coil of very thin wire wrapped around a series of magnets, usually one magnet per guitar string. Arranged so that each magnet is directly under a string. Single coils produce a sound that emphasizes treble and bass frequencies. They tend to pick up electronic noise such as radio frequency signals generated by appliances and lights.

Humbuckers are made of two magnet/coil sets merged into one big coil. They tend to produce a stronger signal which is helpful with distorted guitar tones. They also have a built-in tendency to reject extraneous electronic signals so they do not make as much noise as single coils. They generally have a more balanced frequency response than single coils so that they do not emphasize treble and bass frequencies like single coils.

Neck Profile refers to the depth of the neck and the radius (curvature) of the fretboard. A low number radius like 9 means the neck is relatively curved which is helpful for making bar chords since it fits the shape of the hand well. Necks with a more flat fretboard will have a higher radius number such as 14. These necks will also tend to have less depth from the fretboard face to the back of the neck. These flatter necks are more helpful for playing scales and arpeggios. A Compound Radius necks have a radius that changes from curved near the nut to flat near the body, so that you can make chords easily near the nut while also having the advantage of flatter neck above the 12th fret for facilitating fast scale runs and extreme bends.

Frets come in different sizes and materials. The standard fretwire alloy supplied with most guitars is reasonably durable and provides a well-balanced tonal quality. Stainless steel frets last longer than typical frets but cost more and tend to emphasize treble frequencies. Medium jumbo sized frets are suitable for most hobbyists. For progressive rock, metal, or other high-speed styles, the larger jumbo frets will serve better for high speed scales, sweep arpeggios, and extreme bending.

Most solid body electric guitars bear a similarity to one of two iconic electric guitars: The Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul. The standard Stratocaster features three single coil pick ups, a 25.5 inch scale length (measurement from nut to bridge), and a spring-action floating bridge with a bar for activating the spring action. The floating bridge allows you to apply a pitch variation to the strings through pushing and pulling the bar. The longer scale length means the strings are tighter and the frets are a bit farther apart, so Stratocasters are a little more challenging to play. The body wood is typically alder which enhances the single coil tendency toward emphasizing treble and bass, giving the Stratocaster a bright, glassy chime in the treble range combined with rich, deep bass response. The neck pick up provides a more balanced overall tone which is good for playing cleaner tones, while the bridge pick up provides a more treble enhanced tone which is useful for distortion sounds. The middle pick is reverse wound from the neck and bridge, providing a tone that is in between the neck and bridge in terms of treble enhancement. The reverse winding of the middle coil provides noise cancellation similar to a humbucker whenever the middle coil is activated at the same time as one of the other coils.

Many modern rock guitars are spin-offs of the Stratocaster, often called “super-strats”. The super strats will have more pointy bodies and head stocks, with flatter neck profiles and humbucker pick ups to facilitate high distortion, high speed rock solos.

Gibson Guitars designed the Les Paul around a dual-humbucker pick up configuration, with a shorter 24.75 inch scale length. The humbuckers deliver a strong signal for maximum distortion, while still yielding a great balanced tone for cleaner sounds. The mahogany body tends to de-emphasize treble, leading to a tone that many guitarists describe as “darker”. The shorter scale length means the frets are closer together and the strings are not drawn as tight, so these guitars can be a bit easier to play than the Stratocasters, especially for smaller hands. Like the Strotcaster, the pick up closer to the neck will provide a balanced tone which is great for clean sounds, and the neck pick up will provide more treble clarity which is helpful with distortion tones. The Les Paul also features a fixed bridge for more stable tuning and better sustain than Stratocaster type guitars.

If you are new to guitar and not sure what kind of guitar to start with, I recommend solid body electric guitars for all students of guitar primarily interested in styles other than classical. Solid body electric guitars have small, flat bodies, thin necks, and pliable strings, which altogether makes them easier to play than other types of guitars. After developing a certain level of technique proficiency you will then have a better experience of playing other types of guitars. Both Fender and Gibson offer entry level, low cost Squier and Epiphone versions of their higher end guitars, for very reasonable prices in the range of $100.

Strings

Strings come in different sizes and materials. Bronze strings are for acoustic folk type guitars, and nickel-plated steel is for electric guitars. Thin strings are more pliable and easier to bend, so they are helpful for beginners and those who wish to play at very high speeds. Thicker strings provide a more balanced overall tone with better sustain. String sets with a .010 gauge high E string are a good balance between tone and playability. I use Martin .010 Gauge strings for my acoustic guitars, and D’Addario XL .010 gauge strings for my general purpose electric guitars.

The term “action” refers to the height of the strings above the frets. Lower action means less pressure and less time to fret a note, so it may seem to make the guitar easier to play. The trade off is more fret buzz, more difficulty with bending, and more difficulty with sweep picking techniques. The manufacturer specified string height is typically a good balance.

Picks

Picks also come in many materials, shapes, and thickness. A floppy pick leads to weak pick attack and reduced speed and control. For bronze string acoustic guitars, I use a medium gauge pick of .8 mm for a good balance of control and playablity. For electric guitar I use thicker and more stable heavy gauge 1.5 mm large triangular picks by Clayton. A larger pick will provide more surface area and thus better grip and less unwanted shifting. Different materials provide varying grip, tone, and response. I prefer large, thick acetyl picks for a good balance between durability, grip, and tone. Picks are cheap, so you can afford to experiment to find the one that suits your best.

Reviewing Review

By Guitar Teacher Chad Crawford

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 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. These may seem like common sense, but I assure you that 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 your 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.

 

 

 

 

 

Are you woodshedding yourself into a corner?

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 you 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 tortoise wins the race most of the time. Consistency is the key.