Diary of A Bad Guitar Player: Playing in the Band


I never had a band, exactly. When I first started playing guitar, I played with anyone I could find to play with. This was mostly just jamming- though calling it “jamming” is probably generous. After a while, my cousin and I joined forces with a drummer and tried to start a band. We called it the Psychedelic Aliens and we played whatever Phish or Grateful Dead songs we could best approximate. We did this three or four times, never got anything down, never had set rehearsals and never sound like much. That was the closest I got to being in a band.

I really wanted to be in a band. I just didn’t know how to pull it off at that point. By the time I was in college, I had set my sights on other artistic ambitions and given up on the guitar as anything much more than a hobby. I played a few “gigs” at college functions as a solo act, covering Dylan songs, sounding bad and feeling awkward until I shelved the guitar as a mere hobby. It’s been a great hobby for my entire life. Now I play songs for kids when they will let me or around the occasional campfire. Mostly though, I just play alone.

But lately, this has started to change. When you reach a certain age- or more accurately, when your kids reach a certain age- you begin making new friends with the parents of your kids’ friends. Early this year, a few of us, realizing that we all play guitar, decided to set up a regular jam. That jam is slowly starting to evolve into something like a band. We have songs we rehearse. We have parts to those songs we are supposed to play. It is fun and energizing and a little bit awkward. There is a enough drinking and socializing to give it a relaxed feel, but there is enough focus on the music to make it more than just four dads hanging out with their guitars. It isn’t exactly a band just yet, but it isn’t not a band either.

The dynamics that shape a band have been memorized in dozens of movies and documentaries. They are fertile ground for stories for a good reason. There are extremes within those dynamics. Bruce Springsteen earned the nickname “the Boss” through his total and complete control of his band, while Jerry Garcia spent 30 years as the leader of the Grateful Dead insisting he would not be the leader of the Grateful Dead. The greatest rock band ever, The Beatles, disbanded fifty years ago, but the complex web of relationships in that band still fascinates the world. All of this is to say that being in a band is complicated, even if you are just four dads butchering classic rock tunes.

As my little jam session gets just slightly more ambitious, I find myself sympathizing with Jerry Garcia. Jerry famously just wanted to have fun. He hated authority and didn’t want to become “the boss” of his band. But he was only ever going to be the leader, if only because he was the musical genius of the group and paired with Robert Hunter, the primary songsmith. I am neither of those things, but I have started to feel everyone looking at me when it comes to “what should we play?” and other musical issues. I don’t want answer those questions, I just want to play.

Diary of a Bad Guitar Player: Yousician


I doubt there is anything worse for a guitar player than sitting down to practice and not knowing what to practice. This might be the biggest limiting factor for people like me, who have gone well beyond beginner, but still lack any sense of mastery. It is definitely the worst part of teaching yourself and so often it leads you to just hacking away at something simple or noodling around without direction or purpose.

This problem makes a system like Yousician very appealing. Yousician is a play-along app that features customized progressions for players built around original songs and exercises. It also has a library of songs by popular artists that you can play along with. I have been playing with Yousician for a year and a half with mixed results. This week I decided to return to it to get some more structure to my practice.

It is hard to overstate just how incredible the technology of this program is. It listens to you play and tells you I you hit the right notes in real time as you play. You can slow down songs in practice mode to help master them and then try to nail them in performance mode to progress. As someone old enough to remember a time before there were even chord charts available online, this seems as futuristic as flying cars or self-fitting clothing.

But as impressive as the tech might be, you can’t help but use Yousician and think, “this is basically Guitar Hero on a real guitar.” The program gamifies playing music so much that it feels like you are really only learning to play the game of Yousician and not playing music. This feeling is reinforced by the biggest flaw with the app- you can’t print out or export any of the music to play outside of Yousician. This makes it really difficult to feel like you are mastering a song independent of the app and basically makes it impossible to play anything on your own. As a result, to date, I have only learned one song that I play on my own from Yousician and it was a pretty easy song for me to play (and to memorize) to begin with (Ain’t No Sunshine). Without being able to step away from the very easy-to-follow format of Yousician’s notation and practice with just a metronome, I feel like I never really learn anything but how to play inside Yousician and that is disappointing.

This week, I did discover one thing that I really love Yousician for, however. The program cannot be beat when it comes to practicing techniques like scales and arpeggios. One thing Yousician does really well is to force you to have great time. Because it judges you on accuracy note-by-note, there is no speeding up and slowing down to fit to the beats. You have to nail every sixteenth note in time and this makes it perfect for warming up and for technique exercise. I just wish they had more of them available. As much fun as the app can be for playing along with famous songs, it really crushes it for the more mundane elements of practice and I’ll be incorporating it into my playing for that reason for the foreseeable future.

Diary of a Bad Guitar Player: Playing the Changes


After floundering around with what to practice for a few weeks, I was more consistent this week, in large part because I decided to consciously try to have more fun practicing. I generally enjoy practice, even when it is difficult or even if the things I am practicing are a bit tedious. However, when your principle reason for playing the guitar is not professional aspirations, there is a limit to how much you can push yourself, especially when life outside the fretboard become very stressful.

This week, what I found most fun was playing simple tunes and improving in fingerstyle over those simple changes. I focused on Neil Young’s Helpless, Tom Petty’s Walls, and simple ii-V-I’s in a couple of keys. I focused on using chord forms to shape lines and help me to keep the bass-chords-melody style going to some degree. My main goal with these improvised solos was to “play the changes,” to imply the chords with the lines I created.

The challenge in playing the changes is not just the challenge of highlighting chord tones at the right time. If you have a decent handle on arpeggios, you can navigate simple changes like the ones I was using easily enough if that is the only thing you are trying to do. The real challenge is stay musical while making the changes and still keep the feel of the song. There are hundreds of songs that share the same basic chord pattern at some point in their changes, but don’t share the same feel or melodic context within those changes. It is possible to play the changes and end up with something that doesn’t feel at all like the song you are playing. I managed to do this a lot.

Fingerstyle guitar arrangements offer an advantage in avoiding this though since you typically play the melody as well as implying the chords. I had the most success beginning with simple variations around the arrangement of the melody.

That is somewhat the opposite of playing the changes. Early jazz musicians primarily based solos on the melody, referencing it and return to it as they improvised. A few of the great swing area sax players- most notably Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins- played lines that were more explicitly concerned with the chord changes and these players inspired the next generation of players to follow their lead. When Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie blew open the jazz world with their creation, be-bop, this approach became the dominant one. Navigating complex changes at blazing speeds practically became a sport with pieces like Giant Steps set up like an American Ninja Warrior course for soloists. The style of playing around the melody has become antiquated.

But guitar players are not sax or trumpet players. As guitarists, we are always playing the chords, or riffs that imply them and far too often we don’t actually play the melody. At all. Ever. Every woodwind and brass player plays melodies constantly. Playing the melody is in their blood. It isn’t the same for guitar players, especially if they have played mostly rock, folk, country or blues, like me. When I try to play the changes, I lose the song completely and everything sounds like an exercise in playing chord tones in a pattern. Beginning with something more musical and evolving it away from the melody helped me a lot. So did keeping it simple and slow. I feel like I made real progress with this concept approaching it this way.

Diary of a Bad Guitar Player: Of Dogs and Homework


There is guitar playing and there is life. Sometimes life gets in the way of guitar playing. That has been the case the past two weeks. My practice has slipped and my focus is shot.

What I’m saying is… the dog ate my homework.

She didn’t actually eat my homework, or in this case I guess it would be my sheet music, but adopting our beautiful new puppy, Zuzu, has ruined my practice schedule, along with my sleep schedule and my mind in general. Just over two weeks ago, my family decide to finally fulfill my daughter’s life-long dream- if eight-years old can be said to have life-long dreams- and get a puppy. We got incredibly lucky and we were able to rescue the adorable little girl that you see above.. She is sweet and gentle and quite sleepy. She is also, as anyone who has ever had a puppy will tell you, a ton of extra work, and that work has mostly fallen to me.

Sweet little Zuzu doesn’t deserve the blame here, however. The reality is there will always be something that screws up my guitar practice. Someday (maybe) this quarantine will end and I will have to figure out where practicing can fit in between twelve hour work days, long commutes, being a dad and occasionally even sleeping. I am a bad guitar player, in part, because I have been bad at fitting my guitar playing in to everything else that happens in my life. Music is a hobby for me. I have no intention of ever trying to make a living doing it. When it comes down to it, it can’t really rank that high in my priorities.

But one reason that I don’t just scrap the whole idea of playing music altogether is that I love the discipline of it. I need the discipline of it. Along with exercise, playing music is the main experience in my life that is capable of reminding me that progress comes from doing a little bit every day. Seeing small improvements here and there brings me comfort. It is a reminder that we can be better. Change is possible. I can’t imagine a time where that lesson would be more vital to our everyday existence than it is now. It is one thing to say that change is possible, but it is another to experience change regularly, to embody it. Playing guitar has given me that experience, especially during quarantine, when it feels so hard to imagine change really coming about.

The lessons of playing music don’t just apply to the good times though. They are there when things go wrong as well. Improvement is never a straight line. It is never a series of uninterrupted successes. Failing is part of the process too. So is regression and frustration and wanting to give up and making ridiculous excuses that involve your dog. There is nothing to do but start again. Back to the one. Take two or take two million.

Diary of a Bad Guitar Player: Burnout


It was a rough week of practice. For the first time during quarantine, I missed two days of practice in a week. I also started to feel terrible about my playing, which is something that happens every so often. For days or even weeks at a time, I don’t like the way my guitar sounds. I don’t like anything I am playing and I don’t really want to play much. None of it makes any sense, of course, but it happens anyway.

In this case, I am feeling like this is a little bit of burnout. Recently, I have been focused on playing a number of difficult new things and that has been fun and challenging. It has also been frustrating at times and lately the frustration seems to be outweighing the fun. As I wrote about earlier, I am battling with one of the greatest pieces of rock guitar playing, learning Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing. It has actually been going fairly well, but progress is slow. While I might have been able to learn an entire fingerstyle arrangement in the time I have spent on Little Wing, I am still only working on the intro of it. It feels daunting to even start learning the verses.

But Little Wing isn’t really the source of my frustration lately. I am still really enjoying learning it and I never expected it to happen quickly. I did expect that I would have more success with the inversions I have been working on and that has definitely been a disappointment. I have one week left on these in my current practice regime so I will power through, but I will be happy to move on from them (at least as the central thing I am practicing, you never really move on from anything).

Still, being frustrated with something that is hard to play is one thing, but right now I hate everything I am playing. Acoustic. Electric. Difficult, simple, it doesn’t matter. I am writing this now and when I finish, I will go practice and I am not looking forward to that for the first time in a long time. I don’t want to feel this way but I do and there is no point denying it.

Obviously, I can’t stop playing. That is a slippery slope and one that I have been down before. I am finishing a section of practice this week anyway, so I would be making a new regime anyway and it seems like the timing is good there. Maybe playing something new will help, but it doesn’t feel that way right now. Maybe, this is just something I have to go through periodically. The more I play music, the more I feel like I have a relationship with music. Relationships are difficult, even the best ones. I think it is even more true with music, because, in some ways, my relationship with music is with myself. I can’t blame music for the problems in this relationship, because it is just an abstract concept. I can blame myself, but I don’t see how that will help. Ultimately, the only choice is to play through it and know it will be better on the other side.

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.

Diary of a Bad Guitar Player: Days When You Don’t Have It


One thing that I have been thinking about this week while practicing is what happens on those days when you just don’t have it. I don’t mean days when you lack motivation. That is one thing, of course, but I have found that that is something you just have to fight through. I am talking about the days when you just don’t have it in the sense that you just can’t play well. When you can’t do what you usually do. When everything is forced and it all comes out bad.

I had a few days like that this week and I started to think about them.

What is going on when this happens?

What does it mean that it is happening?

How can I reduce the chances of this happening?

What should I do when I feel this happening?

With these questions on my mind, I started looking into skill acquisition to see if I could find some answers. One interesting article I found came from a sports science site called Humankinetics.com. It outlines the three stages of motor learning- Cognitive, Associative, and Autonomous. Most of the time we spend practicing is spent between the associative and the autonomous. The article explains the associative stage as “is transforming what to do into how to do.” So I might know from the sheet music that I need to play a G chord, but now I need to learn the motor pattern that makes that happen at the moment it needs to happen. Now, making a simple G chord is pretty easy for me at this point, so that particular example is closer to the autonomous level of learning, where motor skills can be reproduced automatically, leaving room for your mind to think about other things. To really play anything, we need to push most of the skills into the autonomous level.

Not being a cognitive scientist, I can only make a few guess at what the underlying causes of these off-days might be, but based on a simple understanding of these learning stages, I think the problem lies in the fact that there is no clear line between associative and autonomous for the person doing the learning. After the fact, those might be distinct categorizations, but if you are playing music, especially new, challenging music, you are going to spend the majority of your time in the border between the free-flowing autonomous actions and the more deliberate associative steps needed to get there.

It then becomes easy to mistake where you are at any given time. Some of the things that you might have assumed were locking into an autonomous process are actually not there yet. Throw in additional distractions, poor sleep or some other stressor and those not-quite-autonomous actions need more deliberate attention than they did yesterday. It feels like you “don’t have it” because your grip on the skill is less firm than it seems. Maybe you can do something autonomously in perfect conditions, but that is not the end of the road.

I think I can take away from this two important points. First, if you feel like you “don’t have it” any given day, you never “had it,” at the level you need it to be at. Second, when this happens, the best thing to do is to take note of it and take a step back and re-cement the basics behind what you are struggling with.

Poem of the Day 6/18/20- Forever Searching for John Hurt


A ’28 pressing from Okeh records,

Sent them on their way,

Looking for Old John Hurt,

Forgotten in his day.

Nothing to much to tell them

Where the bluesman might be

But the song Avalon Blues.

Maybe Georgia, or Mississippi?

Chasing down fingers

Fast as lightning,

A worn-out angel’s voice

With which to sing.

Driving Southern highways,

New York to the Gulf Coast,

To Honky Tonks and Cotton Fields

Searchin’ for a ghost.

A gentle voice on record,

Recorded years ago,

Pressed and sold and forgotten

Gone home and growing old.

Do any highways yet remain,

Dusty, worn and weathered,

Battered and blood-stained,

That lead to the hills that overlook

The birthplace of the blues,

To a hometown (always on my mind)

To the voice of an old and weary angel,

And the pretty girls who want his time?

One day, I’ll get in my car and drive

Down every forgotten back road I can find

And forever search for Old John Hurt

It’s Nobody’s Dirty Business but mine.

Diary of a Bad Guitar Player: Wrestling with Jimi


The past three months in quarantine have greatly reinvigorated my love for playing the guitar and with the help of Lee Anderson and the Play Guitar Podcast, I have found a way of practicing that is yielding big results. The feeling of progress is intoxicating. It is not so much that I am vastly improved as a player. It is more the feeling that improvement is possible and, with the right approach, even assured.

Now that I am in a habit of regular practice, the question that I struggle with the most is what to practice. I am not a professional with gigs to rehearse for, and while I have plenty of method books I could learn from, following one of those dogmatically does not really interest me. I have been selecting songs that I want to learn and techniques that I need to improve upon and breaking down a practice schedule from there. So, as I completed the last cycle of songs and techniques, I had to pick something new to play. I wanted to get away from fingerstyle arrangements for a little while, but still learn a song where a solo guitar would sound complete by itself. I decided to chase after a tune that has been a goal of mine to learn for almost as long as I have been playing the guitar: Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing.

My reservation with this pick was that I was almost certain that it is too difficult for me. I was not wrong about that, but over a week into battling my way through it, I can honestly say trying to play it has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had playing the guitar.

It is difficult to explain exactly why it has been such an incredible experience for me. It is definitely not because I am mastering the tune or playing Jimi’s complex lines with anything resembling competence. I am not. In a week of daily practice, I have got to the point where I am able to reproduce about three bars of the intro, in time, every two or three attempts. Often, it sounds terrible. Often, I am lost. I am no more confident that I will be able to learn this song now then I was when I started and possibly even less confident. And I am having a blast.

Learning Little Wing (or trying to learn it) is such an amazing experience for me because it is a masterpiece. I don’t think I was aware just how much this is true until I began tying to learn it note for note. Jimi is such a unique player and Little Wing is such a perfect example of everything I love about his playing. I don’t feel like I am just learning a song, I feel like I am learning what is possible on a guitar. The song isn’t Jimi’s flashiest playing, but it is full of subtle details- tiny rhythmic nuances, small passing phrases- that are pure genius. The song is played at a slow pace and it never feels like Jimi is playing fast but he packs every bar. The dynamics in his playing- the way he moves from loud to soft- are  a revelation. Everything is played with purpose and clarity, everything combines to create the song’s dreamscape-feeling.

At my present pace, I will probably be able to play Little Wing somewhere around 2023 or so. Sticking with a song that is that far above my head is probably not sustainable, but at this point, I can’t imagine giving up on it. I have no fear of failing with this song, because every minute spent working at it seems like a minor victory.

Diary of a Bad Guitar Player: New warm-ups and new challenges


After one week of focused on trying to taking better care of my hands, my fingers are feeling much better and I am starting to look for ways to begin building more strength in them. If you are struggling with soreness in your playing, I highly recommend making the following additions to your practice routine.

My Warm-up

I used the following warm-up before even touching the guitar.

  1. Hand-shakes: Keep your hands loose and shake them to get them warmed up. Any way that is comfortable and gets them moving will do.
  2. Finger taps- lightly tap each finger to your thumb, moving from pointer to pinkie and back. Do this with your hands facing away from your body, in neutral (hands facing each other) and with hands facing your body. 3-5 times
  3. Finger presses- press each finger to your thumb firmly, moving from pointer to pinkie and back. Do this with your hands facing away from your body, in neutral (hands facing each other) and with hands facing your body. 3-5 times
  4. Finger bends- Bend each finger down to the heel of your hand, from pointer to pinkie and back.
  5. Finger curls- Bend each finger to the bottom of the finger
  6. One-hand claps- slap all your finger against your palm and extend them back up straight.
  7. Thumb circles- make wide circles with your thumb in both directions
  8. Jazz hands- make a fist then pop your fingers out as wide as possible

This takes just a few minutes and it really helped me to feel less stiff as I started playing. It is simple enough to do basically anywhere.

Breaking up my warm-up exercises on the guitar was also extremely helpful. I did one minute on and thirty seconds off while running my finger exercises and I felt much better. I am planning on build these up my doing one day a week on the acoustic for the next two weeks and by slowly adding time in fifteen second intervals. With my hands feeling better and my focus on maintaining a lighter touch, I was able to improve my speed on these exercises as well, so that was a great bonus.

Now that my hands are feeling better, I am trying to decide on what to learn next. I have been playing exclusively fingerstyle arrangements for the past few weeks and I am coming close to having locked in on the songs I am working on. For my next song, I am looking for a different kind of challenge but I have not decided what that should be just yet.