Tag Archives: secrets

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.

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.


A Secret of Success with Guitar

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.

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!