Diary of A Bad Guitar Player: Alternate Universes


I must confess, I am scared of alternate tunings. I am not sure when in my near-30 years of being bad at playing guitar that the fear set in, but it is there now and it is quite real. I think it took root early on. After learning the basic chords and beginning to strum some songs, play some riffs and get my #guitarface on, it probably occurred to me that by changing the tuning of the guitar I would cast myself out in to a world of unknown patterns, of misplaced notes and general bewilderment. Once I took the time to get most of my scale patterns down, I was all the way out on alternate tunings. I was not about to let a few twists on a half-dozen pegs turn me into Donnie from the Big Lebowski- out of my element, like a child who walks into the middle of a movie…

So, no alternate tunings for me. Not for the many, many fingerstyle blues songs that I might learn in open G or open D. Not to add one of my favorite Dylan tunes- Buckets of Rain (played in open E)- to the setlist. Not to get the rhythm guitar sound that drives so many amazing Joni Mitchell tunes.

I would guess this not uncommon. It is intimidating to look at the six strings and twenty or more frets that make up a guitar. You naturally wonder how the hell anyone knows which note is which in that perplexing arrangement of steel and wood. Once you get a little bit of handle on it, you sure as hell don’t want to go back to that place where you are entirely unsure what the note on the next string is.

I realize now though, that this a mistake and it is exactly the kind of mistake that I tend to make. In fact, this the kind of mistake that is at the heart of my struggle to play music.

I am not comfortable not knowing things. I like to have some kind of understanding of a subject, a basic working knowledge I can build on. This is helpful in many areas of life, of course. It creates an impulse to research things, to commit things to memory, to read and learn and engage with a wide range of topics and ideas. Even in studying music, this is generally a good thing. I know far more about music theory than I need to as a result and that knowledge is often useful. The problem is that music- playing music specifically- is largely about experience and not information. That is why is requires practice and not study. By avoiding the difficult and uncertain terrain posed by alternate tunings, I avoided a way of playing that would depend on my ear and not my hands. It chose the security of knowledge over lessons only experience can teach.

My recent playing, most of which has been following Lee Anderson’s Play Guitar Academy, has pushed me to use my ear more. Playing leads of backing tracks, I am trying to find my way more by ear now than ever before. And I am happy to say it is working. I recognize when I hit chord tones, even if I don’t know exactly where I am in the progression. I also get lost in the progression much less often because I hear the changes better.

 It is encouraging, but it has also shown me my limitations. I still can’t reliably transcribe anything. I still feel lost trying to play over chords if I don’t know the key or the changes. And I am still baffled by alternate tunings. Now, however, I see that limitation as just another excuse. I don’t have a great ear- that is true. I have tried to hide behind knowing songs and theory and other tricks to dodge the discomfort of getting into a place where I don’t know what I should play. I can see now I need that discomfort. I need to try to play in different tunings. I need to get lost and not know the chords and find my way by ear alone. I am excited to try.

Diary of a Bad Guitar Player: Fingerstyle learning and deep listening


A million days into quarantine (approximately), my practice on the guitar has fallen into a steady routine. I am working on new fingerstyle songs, practicing the ones I learned the last week, working on improving on one or two of the songs I know and play regularly with a focus on implying the changes and doing some ear training.

The Ear training is by far the greatest challenge for me. This week, I focused hard on singing intervals to advance my interval recognition. It is tedious work. I have been using a chromatic tuner and playing an interval, then singing that interval. Since it often takes me several tries to get the notes in tune and then get the interval correct, this is slow work. Painfully slow. After a few intervals, I move on to singing through the major scale, then on just playing the major scale slowly, listening carefully to the intervals. After ten or fifteen minutes of this, I start to feel like an insane person, but I can see very small glimmers of progress, so I plod along at it.

The biggest discovery I have made by going through this drudgery is that there exists different levels of listening. The deep listening it takes to hear the notes and intervals in this ear training practice is different for the way I listen to music riding in the car, or even the way that I listen back to improvisations I have played, thinking critically about them. I spend a lot of time listen carefully to music because I love it and I am fascinated by it, but to hear the notes with total clarity, I have to listen much deeper,  and that is something I am just getting a handle on. I couldn’t even begin to listen to most pop or rock music this way at this point because it is just too dense. I think the closest I get to this kind of deep listening in casual music listening is when I listen to Christopher Parkening playing Eric Satie on the classical guitar. Those slow, ringing melodies are about all I can handle listening in this way.

On the other side of things, learning the fingerstyle arrangement of Harvest Moon this week was a brutal reminder of one- how slow I am at learning me pieces- and two- how the learning curve goes for me. I am not sure if this a typical experience, but whenever I learn challenging new pieces of music the process is basically three to five days of utter hopelessness where I am stabbing at bits of melody and chords as the metronome clicks by. I lose time, I play the wrong notes, I start again, it goes the same or maybe worse. Then, mysteriously, I am playing sections of the song with some degree of competence. The transition between hopeless noob and a competent player is not a smooth line rising upward at all. I suck, badly, for ever and then without warning, I am suddenly playing something that could be recognized as music.

The catch is that the first inklings of competence on a tune are still a million miles from it sounding good. One of the things I enjoy most about fingerstyle guitar arrangements is that once you have the basic notes down, the challenge becomes about the details of the melody and harmony, getting the right emphasis on notes and all the other minor details. That part of the process takes me months, but it never feels like work because I am playing the song. That first step of learning the basics always kicks my ass.