Diary of A Bad Guitar Player: Natural Guitar


This week’s diary entry was delayed for two reasons. First, I was camping this past weekend and that kept me away from technology for a few days. Those days just happen to coincide with the days when I usually write this entry.

The second reason for the delay was that the experience of practicing in the serene spot that I had while camping and a few other parts of that experience got me thinking about playing the guitar in a different way and I was not immediately able to find words to express what I was thinking and experiencing in the days after.

On our camping trip, I had a sweet little morning practice routine going. After brewing some coffee on the camping stove, I trucked out along a cliffside path through the woods to a spot where the forest opened up onto- and looked out over the eroded sands- the ocean. There I sat down and began to practice as egrets and cormorants fished for their breakfast and swallows darted between the sand and the trees. It was a beautiful spot and a beautiful way to begin a day. Just me and m guitar and the wild world around me.

Because this was so idyllic, I wanted to play beautiful music and have that music score the serenity of the moment and… well, of course, I sucked. I sucked out loud over the dunes and that crashing tides, over the tangles of briars, over the majestic oaks and maples. After all, this wasn’t a recital. This was practice and I was practicing shit I can’t yet play and playing it as badly as ever. I could wish to replace my metronome with the soft crash of the waves, I could hope to harmonize with the cedar waxwings and goldfinches fluttering through the trees, but I was still me and the guitar was still a guitar and as beautiful as all the world around me might be, it was still separate from me. Still just a place that I visit and it’s music is not my music.

If this had been the only experience I took away from this minor departure, I would probably not have struggled to express my experiences for the past few days. But something else happened while I was voluntarily living out of a tent with my family this past week. Sitting by the campfire, I set my guitar down, probably to prevent one of the kids from setting it aflame with an errant marshmallow. My niece picked it up and began to mess around with it. I explained to her how the frets worked and showed her how to hold down a string (I was hard for her, it’s always hard when you first try). She listened and tried and struggled and wen back to the serious matter of extinguishing blazing confections.

After ten or fifteen minutes, she asked me “ how do I play something on it?” The question stymied me. I think I said, “well, it’s not easy.” Or something similarly trite and unhelpful. She didn’t stop playing though. She puzzled over the strings and the frets and the entire idea of the instrument for a while longer, strumming here, picking there, listening to the sounds and trying to make sense of them. So I watched her for a while and started thinking about how I look at the guitar.

The guitar is this strange instrument. If you look at the keyboard of a piano, each note has one key, but on a guitar, the same note could be played maybe three or four different places on the instrument. Starting out, we try to make sense of this by learning all these chord shapes and fingering patterns for scales and eventually, it kind of makes some kind of sense. But, after a while, that becomes the only way that you look at the guitar and it is not always a natural way to look at it. You get to the point of trying to make the guitar fit in a piano-shaped box, musically speaking. This can be particularly true when practicing things like chord inversions, which is what I have been working on recently.

One exercise that I love to break out of this way of thinking comes from one of my favorite YouTube guitar teachers, Assaf Levavy of Lick N Riff. In this video, he breaks down a way to improvise with just Emaj7 and Amaj7 in fingerstyle and using the open E and A strings. I love this because with just a couple of very intuitive fingerings and a little knowledge of the E major scale, you can improvise these gorgeous lines over E and A bass notes, exploring and inventing in a way that uses the guitar as a guitar, with open strings, slides, single finger barres- all the simple techniques that belong to the instrument itself.

Because I have also been working on “Little Wing” by Jimi Hendrix as discussed here, I thought about Jimi’s playing this way as well. One of the reasons “Little Wing” is so captivating is that Jimi finds all these little passing lines within the chords he is (or often isn’t) playing. He is completely at home playing within the “shapes” of chords to the point where they disappear and he accesses everything that the guitar can be for itself.

I realize this is all a bit esoteric, but I think it is also practical. Getting away from all these complicated finger patterns is very freeing and seeing the power of what the guitar makes easy for you to play is a good idea every so often.

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