Tag Archives: Palmetto Music Institute

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.

Learning Songs (Transcribing)

As guitar players we usually have two general goals: (1) self-expression and (2) learning our favorite songs. While there is some overlap between the skill sets for these two goals, learning others’ songs is often the easier of the two, and it can help us keep our motivation strong while we are working on the loftier goal of self-expression. In this article I am going to break down the process of learning songs.

First, do not go straight to a free TAB site. Instead, try my procedure below FIRST. We will come back to transcriptions in a moment.

Step 1. Listen to the song! This statement may seem frivolous since you have probably already listened to your favorite songs many times. However, listening to learn is different than listening for enjoyment. When you are listening to learn, you must focus your attention fully on the song and all the parts of the song. For instance, listen for the chord changes and for how long each chord lasts. Listen for differences in chord arrangement between verse, chorus, and bridge. Listen to the vocal structure. Vocal structure is often more obvious and easier to remember than chord changes, and so the vocal cues will help you remember when the chord changes are coming. Listen carefully for prominent guitar fills, and of course pay attention to where the solo (if any) falls within the song structure, i.e. verse, chorus, verse, chorus, solo.

This is not the kind of listening you typically do where the music is in the background while your mind is wandering elsewhere. You must focus your full attention on the song and keep it there throughout the song, making mental note of important events such as chord changes and fills. I recommend to use headphones and close your eyes while listening to the song at least a few times, but the more times the better.

Step 2. Try to figure out the key of the song. You can do this by continually picking the sixth string as you move your fretting finger up the fretboard until you hear that your note matches the fundamental reference pitch of the song, which is usually the first chord of the song. Listen not only to the guitar(s) but also the bass in helping you determine the key.

Step 3. Determine whether the mood of the song is major or minor. This does not have to involve any kind of complicated music theory analysis. Just listen for the overall feel of the song. Does it sound bright, happy, and upbeat? Then it is probably major. Does it sound more melancholy, serious, and dark? Then it is probably minor. Much country music is in a major key, while much rock music is in a minor key. While there are other possibilities than strictly major or minor (such as the Dominant progressions of Blues which fall between major and minor), a large percentage of popular music falls into one of these two moods. Listening for the mood of the song will help you narrow down the possibilities for chords and scales.

Step 4. Sort out the chord changes. For most popular music, once you know whether the song is major or minor then there are only a handful of likely basic chords. Once you figure out the basic chord possibilities, then it is not very much more work to determine what alterations if any the artist has made to the basic chords. It is helpful to consider that most popular songs will contain the 1st, 4th, and 5th interval chords from the key, and the 6th is also a popular chord. Keep these chord progressions in mind since you will probably find that your favorite song is going to contain something along the lines of these common progressions: 1-4-5, 1-4-1-5, 1-5-6-4. If it is a rock song with heavy distortion the chords will often be 5th chords (power chords), whereas if it is a cleaner guitar tone then the chords will often be more along the lines of the typical major or minor open or bar chords you know.

Listen carefully to the song. It is going to start on some chord which will match the key and mood of the song. Then it will do one of two things, go up or go down in pitch to the next chord. So experiment until you figure out that chord. For instance, if the opening chord is a G major, the next chord will likely go up in pitch, and is likely to be a similar type of chord. In other words, if the opening chord is a G Major, the next chord is not going to be a Bb7b5 or some other monstrous mysterious chord. Rather it is probably going to be a simple C or D Major. So plug in the chords you know and see what fits. Repeat until you have figured out the chords.

Step 5. If there is a solo in the song, listen to it repeatedly as before. Now consider the mood of the song: major or minor? If it is major, the solos will likely contain some variation of the Major Pentatonic scale. If minor, then the Minor Pentatonic is a likely option. From there, listen again and see if you do not hear bits of the scale you think is probably the right one. Pick out the parts of the solo that you can quickly figure out.

Now it gets a little tricky, because solos are often fast moving, usually do not follow strict scale patterns, and often include licks from scales other than the basic Pentatonic scales. So this is where you need to bring in the “heavy guns”.

(a) Use a computer software such as Windows Media Player, Riffstation, or any recording software to slow down the solo so that you can hear clearly how the notes are moving from one to the next, then pick them apart one by one until you have a particular lick worked out. Then move to the next lick and repeat and until you have the solo figured out. Many of these software programs such as Riffstation will allow you to “loop” a small segment of a song. In other words, you can select beginning and end points within the song and the software will play that little segment over and over in a loop for you while you listen and figure out the notes.

(b) Get help from your teacher

(c) After trying all this, THEN go get a real professionally scored TAB if possible (some popular songs do not have pro TABs available). This should be the LAST step you take after having tried the ones above. At first, you will not get far with deciphering the songs, but the more you do it, the better you get. So try to do it yourself first, then when you reach the end of your transcribing skills, go get a TAB. I recommend to avoid free TAB web sites since the TAB is user generated (any beginner can submit a self-written TAB) and I have found that these TABS are often completely wrong. You can find good professionally scored TABS at Musicnotes.com and FreehandMusic.com. Even with pro TAB, you will need to listen to the song carefully to make sure what you are playing matches the song. Some aspects of guitar technique are nearly impossible to convey on paper, and even the pros make an occasional mistake.

 

Bear in mind, this will be challenging at first. Don’t give up! These procedures work well with common popular songs, but they will be much more challenging for certain genres such as fusion, jazz, or progressive rock. For transcribing in these more complex styles, you will need a more expansive mastery of music theory and a well developed ear. Start with simple songs that have clear chord changes and relatively simple solos at moderate speeds, such as Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb.

Be tenacious. Happy Transcribing!

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

After a decade 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!