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: 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: 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: 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.  

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.