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: Weakness is my biggest weakness


This should have been a good week of practice. I am close to locking down one of the fingerstyle songs I have been learning and I made significant progress on the other song that has been my primary focus for the last three weeks. But as thrilled as I am with that progress, there is a shadow that has hung over all my playing this week. That shadow is pain. Specifically, pain in the fingers in my left (fretboard) hand. My fingers are aching, they are sore, they feel weak- it’s awful.

Some years ago, I had a conversation with a friend of mine who is a concert pianist. He is an extremely talented musician with unreal skill on his instrument. I remember asking him what he practiced every day because I was curious what someone who is at that high a level of skill works on day-to-day, with playing and practicing as their sole professional responsibility. He explained that his current performance was roughly an hour worth of music, so if he were just to go through that music four to five times, that would be four or five hours of practice on its own. Then explained that he spent an hour or so stretching, warming-up and keeping his hands in shaped because if he injured his hands, he would be out of work. That conversation has been on mind ever since it dawned on me that I was wearing out my left hand by playing guitar.

It is probably not all playing guitar though. My other main hobby is fitness and my regular workouts certainly have their effect in beating down my hands as well (I am looking at you pull-ups and hangs). Of course, when it comes to exercise, I am hyper-aware of needing to build up capacities, warm-up, rest and strength weaknesses. Naturally, I feel like a fool for not realizing sooner that if I was going to really make a leap in my playing, I would need to at least consider the same things when it comes to my hands. I have even had conversations with friends who are into bouldering and rock-climbing about how finger strength is one of the most difficult areas to train because the hands are largely ligaments and tendons which take much longer to strength than muscles. Like the Beatles say, I should have known better.

I am fairly confident that I do not have a serious injury in my hand, just the normal fatigue that comes with careless overuse piled on top of poor conditioning. Fortunately, I have a lifetime full of sports training-related screw-ups that I can apply to this problem. Musical problems are beyond me, but a physical one? Yeah, I got this. I am going to apply the following protocol to my hand issues and see where I am in a week.

  1. Rest: I didn’t count on 30 minutes-a-day blowing up my hand this much, but it has so now I need to consider rest days. I won’t play two days this week to completely rest my hand since it is actually hurting.
  2. Active recovery: Thanks to this video from the great sage of soreness Kelley Starett at The Ready State, I have already started foaming rolling for my hands with the markers my kids leave all over the house.
  3. Strengthening: Weak muscles, tendons and ligaments don’t magically become strong ones, so I need to focus more on actually strengthening these weak areas. Since the main reason I hurt my hand to begin with seems to be the fingering exercises that I was using to strengthen with hand, I can assume that it was too much too soon. If that happened with a lift or some other exercise, I would lower the tension (practice these exercises on the electric guitar instead of the acoustic), and take longer rests between sets (or any rest, in this case, since I was just running finger exercises for five minutes straight and only pausing when it started to hurt) I think one minute on, thirty seconds rest for a six sets should replace the five minute warm-up.
  4. Better technique: I think it is safe to say that I generally press too hard on the guitar, especially when I am struggling with fingerings, which is absurdly counterproductive since a lighter touch is smoother and quicker. In these exercises, I am now going to focus not just on the fingerings, but on how light I can keep my touch as I go through them. Typically, I start with a lighter touch and grab the strings firmer as I fatigue. That is poor habit to develop and a recipe for hurting my hand again when I try more challenging exercises.
  5. Better warm-ups and stretching: Before you train, you warm-up. After you train, you stretch. That is a basic tenant that most athletes are familiar with. Warming up means dynamic movements to get blood flowing to muscles and prep them for movement and stretching is using extended positions to expand range of motion. I probably should have done some of this for my hands, right? I know, I am an idiot. What does like for your hands? I am not exactly sure, but I think it will be easy enough to figure out with some experimenting.

So that is plan. I will let everyone know how it goes and hopefully, I can spare you the same pain and figure out how to fix my biggest weakness- weakness itself.

Diary of a Bad Guitar Player: Let’s talk about Locking In


Hello again, my guitar playing friends.

Well, it has been another week in quarantine and another week of solid practice. I am seeing progress on the two new fingerstyle songs I am working on and that feels great. On the other hand, I have really gotten away from ear training this week and I feel guilty about that. It is always the most difficult to work on the things that produce the fewest tangible results. Learning a song means, at some point, you will be able to sit down in front of people and play that song and that makes the practicing that goes into it feel like it is leading to something. With so many other important things- like ear training- there is no singular endpoint to imagine and look forward to and I think that makes it feel overwhelming.

I have begun to add ten minutes of speed work into the beginning of my practices and I think that is something I will stick with. I started doing this because I would just feel stiff at the beginning of each practice session. I mixed simple finger exercises with playing scales to warm-up my fingers and in just a few days I started to see small increases in my speed with these. I have also noticed that this warm-up is a great rhythm warm-up as well. When I am playing at the end of my fingers’ ability to keep up, I have to “lock-in” to the rhythm even as I am losing it. As I fall behind, I try to stay mentally connected to the beat even though I am not playing with it physically.

“Locking-in” is something I have been thinking about a lot this week while I am playing. I notice that this kind of progression happens whenever I learn a new fingerstyle arrangement. At first, when I am primarily focused on which fingers go where, I react to the beat as best I can. I always work with a metronome and always start at a slow pace. Sometimes I am pushing the beat when I know the fingerings and slipping behind it when I am struggling with them. Once I get used to the fingerings a little- not even close to mastering them, but just familiar with them- getting them fit into the rhythm starts to be the main thing I am working on. I’ll miss notes and slip behind or ahead of the beat, but I am trying to hold on to it each bar and with each note. Then the biggest change in the process happens and it seems to happen without me intending for it to happen. Suddenly, I start playing the song or a section of the song and I will “lock-in.”

When I say “lock-in” I certainly don’t mean that I suddenly begin playing with rhythmic precision. Instead, I feel like the beat takes over. I am now feeling the beat first and playing with it. Or playing to it. Or both. I am not sure exactly what the change really is, but something is different. If I screw up a note or chord change, I am still locked into the beat as I am going and hitting the next note or chord on time in spite of the error. Even if I don’t hit the next note, I am still being carried forward by the beat and hearing my place in it. I think this is biggest turning point in the process of learning a new song. Once this happens, everything opens up. I start hearing the song, even before I am playing it correctly and my fingers start to move to the right notes with far less effort.

I have been thinking about this so much because I think that the faster I can get to this place, the faster I can learn things on the guitar. Because I am not sure exactly why it begins to happen when it does, I have a hard time seeing how to get to it quicker, but I think that doing so is key. If this is all very esoteric and incomprehensible, I apologize. I can imagine better musicians out there thinking, “of course you have to lock-in, dumbass, that is what playing music is,” but I don’t think what I am trying to describe is something that only I struggle with.

Obvious or esoteric or just plain confusing as it may be, I think the difference between playing on time with the beat and being “locked-in” is one of the core ideas in music. I have heard tons of musicians talk about, but never in terms of how they approach it when learning a new song or technique or concept. I suspect this because so much of this is intuitive, or it is supposed to be. When it comes to music, I have never had much intuitive ability and I imagine that is why I am a bad guitar player. Regardless, this is an idea that fascinates me and if I have to analytically bludgeon it into submission, so be it. Whatever it takes to stop sucking.

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.