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: 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.

The Grateful Dead’s Aoxomoxoa turns 50


On June 20, 1969, The Grateful Dead released their third studio album, the palindromic and nearly unpronounceable Aoxomoxoa. In celebration, a 50th Anniversary version of the album has been released featuring both the original 1969 mix and the 1971 remastered version along with a selection of live recordings from the Avalon Ballroom performances from January 24 through the 26th. The album, here in its original mastering next to the remastered version, is an incredible time capsule of the high-water mark of psychedelia and shows one of the greatest bands in rock music just on the edge of a massive breakthrough.

I had not realized previously that the album I knew as Aoxomoxoa was actually the remastered 1971 version and so when I jumped into listening to this anniversary release, I was excited to hear the songs in their original release. My first take-away after listening to the 1969 version of the album is that it is mixed horribly, and I completely understand why the band felt the need to remaster it when they could. Their struggles with the original mastering are understandable. This was the first time they were recording on a 16-track recorder and the first major studio album to do so as well. At the time, the Dead had an uncomfortable relationship to the studio struggled with trying to bring the energy of their live sound to the album to such a degree that they used both live tracks and studio tracks to cobble together their second album Anthem of the Sun. Adding new technology to the process was not going to help the band at that time and the original mix is proof of that. By the time they had remixed the album, the band had found their voice in the studio with Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, their two best studio albums.

But even if the remastered version is a better listening experience overall, the original album feels more important, for both its overall historical context and its context in the history of the band. The summer of 1969 is laced with events of giant historical import. Human beings reached the moon, probably our greatest achievement to date. There was Woodstock and the Manson murders, the demon-and-angel twin children of the flower power era. Aoxomoxoa was not the soundtrack of that summer for most people (the soundtrack to Hair and the Beatles White Album probably share that title), but it is an album that has a sound that could only really exist in its context. From the reverby harpsichord underscoring the Tom-Bombadillian lyrics of Mountains of the Moon to the acapella ending on Doing That Rag to whatever the heck acid-test noise is going on What’s Become of the Baby?, this album is one of the last gasps of the psychedelic rock movement that began with The Beatles experiments on Revolver in 1966 and peaked with Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and then almost seems to officially end with Jimi’s blistering National Anthem at Woodstock. For all its imperfections, the original release of Aoxomoxoa is more true to its time than the cleaned up version of 1971.

It is also a more accurate representation of who the Grateful Dead were at that time than the ’71 remix. The band didn’t just improve their studio recording technique in the time between 1969 to 1971, they became a completely different band. Keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan may not have been the frontman he was when the band started as an electric blues band, but he was still a huge part of their sound. Aoxomoxoa signals the move away from him, with Garcia taking lead vocals on all the tracks and only Dupree’s Diamond Blues even remotely harkening back to the original blues concept. By the time of the remix, the Dead had possibly fired Pigpen once and seen him step aside from the band for health reasons for a stretch of time. The blues roots that had been the impetutus for forming an electric band were giving way to a broader blend of styles that drew from Jerry Garcia’s bluegrass roots, Lesh’s avant-garde background and even early bebop. The experimentation that began in the Acid Tests’ format-free musical searching was arriving in a new place that would be hinted at with the subsequent release of Live/Dead and fully released with the release of Europe ’72. As they were making the original Aoxomoxoa, the Dead were just on the edge of becoming the defining “jam-band,” the foremost masters of group improvisation in the rock band format.

The album shows the Dead in transition at the exact moment rock music was in transition. Apart from The White Album and the soundtrack to Hair, the best-selling albums of 1969 seem to point in a new direction for the next decade of Rock N Roll. Former ace studio musician Glenn Campbell released Wichita Lineman late in 1968 and it was a top seller in 1969 along with Johnny Cash’s masterpiece Live at San Quentin. Creedence Clearwater Revival had a top hit with Green River following Bayou Country and The Band followed up 1968’s Music from Big Pink with their self-titled second album. The psychedelic sound was clearly giving way to a return to where the decade had begun with more folk and country sounds finding their way into music from some of the artists who spearhead the psychedelic sound. Eric Clapton joined Steve Winwood for Blind Faith and played  with Delaney and Bonnie and Friends. The Rolling Stones spent much of the year working on Let It Bleed, signaling their move to the more roots-based sounds that would be fully on display with Sticky Fingers with songs like Country Honk and Midnight Rambler.

The Grateful Dead followed suit the next year with their breakthrough studio album Workman’s Dead and made their best studio record, American Beauty, in the same vain right after. The wah-pedal and heavy reverb sounds that had defined rock in the late Sixties fade away as quick as they had arisen and Aoxomoxoa sits right at the edge of that transition. Between one version of Aoxomoxoa and the next, the overtly trippy sounds and lyrics of songs like China Cat Sunflower, Cosmic Charlie and Mountains of the Moon would give way to the more fully realized compositions that define the best side of the Dead’s songwriting ability, songs like Box of Rain, Tennessee Jed, Friend of the Devil, Truckin,’  Uncle John’s Band and Ripple.  Pop music was leaving the doors of perception behind for green grass and dirt roads and the Dead were on the same trip.

By the time the band remixed Aoxomoxoa, they were a better studio band and they were now using their studio albums as a way to provide templates for their songs before they were re-imagined and reinvented on stage nightly. The 1971 remaster sounds much better and the songs are much clearer, but that comes at the price of the album’s context. The better presentation cannot fix the fact that the songs are still not as polished as what 1970 will bring. Only China Cat Sunflower became a jamming staple, though Cosmic Charlie had its moments and St. Stephen is one of their best early live tunes, especially as presented on Live/Dead. The strangeness of the songs almost makes more sense in the stranger, harder-to-listen to mix. There is a fog that the songs can’t quite cut through and apart from St. Stephen and Dupree’s Diamond Blues (on which the vocal is really buried), a better look at the songs doesn’t make them much better. In 1969, they were going for something new and strange and by 1971, they were cleaning up an album that they had moved beyond.

It is incredible to think that things were moving that fast, for the band and for music in general. The best thing about Aoxomoxoa is that feeling that this is something from another world, that it is completely disconnected from what pop music in any conventional sense sounds like. I have seen it referred to as the peak of the Dead’s experimental phase. That is a strange idea to try to apply any one point in the history of a band that existed solely for experimentation, but it is not a foolish notion. The Grateful Dead began as electric blues band at the time when Eric Clapton and John Mayall were making that the coolest thing you could be. They took tons of acid and tried to find a new road through the amps to musical freedom. That road led back to where they began in country blues, folk, bluegrass and jazz. At the point where their parabola crested and began its return, they made this album and it remains an incredible listen and a trail marker in that journey.

 

 

Ten Albums that Influenced Me When I Was a Teenager


My rather extended thoughts on this little Facebook trend.

  1. The White Album- If I were to pledge some great impact from or allegiance to whatever was going in music when I was a teenager, I would be lying. I was a classic rock kid and dozens of albums that were recorded when my parents were teenagers meant more to me at fifteen and sixteen than the music that was coming out then. Then and now, no band has ever mattered more to me than the Beatles. This is not an original take on the matter or something unique to me. It is the default, but it is also the truth.

I first fell in love with the Beatles listen to my dad’s record of the 1967-70 collection. I was also a bit of Greatest Hits kid and admit with much shame (more on that later. I moved on to the albums in short order, however, and while Sgt Pepper, Rubber Soul, Abbey Road, and Let It Be were just as heavy in the rotation in my teens, The White Album had the biggest influence on me then because it is so incessantly strange. Forget the hits on it. They’re great of course, but for me, this album is about Happiness is a Warm Gun, The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill and Piggies It’s about John, Paul, George and Ringo at their weirdest, indulging in being famous enough to be truly eccentric and still making some of the best Rock N’ Roll ever recorded. It is an album that seems full of cryptic messages and deep insights- so much that it obsessed one deranged man who built a murderous cult around it- but it is full of jokes and playfulness and infighting and self-deprecations too. Did I mention it also has approximately a million killer tracks on it, good enough to justify the persistent need to skip crap like Revolution 9? It is exactly the kind of thing you get obsessed with at fifteen, but unlike so many of those things, it is still enjoyable at thirty-five.

 

  1. Picture of Nectar- I didn’t get the nickname Hippie Matt as a freshman in college for ironic reasons. I was a Phishhead and a Deadhead and super into Bob Marley and constantly donned in tie-dye. That mostly all started with listening to Picture of Nectar after my cousin lent it to me. It was weird (not White Album weird, mind you) and totally different from the Classic Rock I was listening to, but also fun and full of great guitar and ripe for geeking out on, which I did in a very major way. I could follow this up with a list of the ten Phish bootlegs I wasted the most time on internet message boards trying to trade for, but it would be sad, sad reminder of just how little did with my life in those days and who needs that? I don’t listen to Phish much these days but I still enjoy some of it if I am I the mood. I cannot at all connect with the person who cared so much about it now, though, and that makes me sad. This was a big deal for me way back when.

 

  1. A Love Supreme- One of the things that might happen if you get super into jam bands is that you might slip down the improvisational music rabbit hole and land in the Wonderland of Jazz music. Jazz is mostly a punchline today, especially the more avant-garde versions like this. I love it though and Coltrane deserves at least 90-percent of the reverence that is laid before him. He is amazing and this album is amazing. As with Phish, I don’t listen to A Love Supreme much anymore. I listen to Coltrane’s Sound or Blue Train all the time, but not A Love Supreme. Maybe when you are young, you have more patience for the experimental, or maybe you find depth in things that seem deep that isn’t really there or maybe you miss the deep in the things that are less weird because strange things are strange and that seems important. I don’t know. I should probably listen to this album more, but I won’t.

 

 

  1. Nevermind- It feels obligatory to cite Nirvana, but it is a case of the cliché being true. Smells Like Teen Spirit was a watershed moment in music for my generation. Grunge was our Rock N’ Roll, the style that came of age with us and it was pretty great. I grew out of Nirvana before I stopped being a teenager and had to get ten years or so away from it before I could go back and remember it for being as important as it was. Some of that was the side of me that has to reject the popular thing and some of it was all the terrible shit that followed that was trying to sound like Nirvana. There was a ton of terrible shit. Nevermind was brilliant though and of all the Rock N’ Roll alternate histories you could make, I think Kurt Cobain not killing himself is one of the most fascinating. He was a brilliant artist in several mediums and a thoughtful and empathetic person. Things would be different today if he was alive. I’m not sure how, but they would be different.

 

  1. Ten- For all the incredible impact that Nevermind had, Pearl Jam’s Ten is the better album and was at least equally important to me as a teenager. As an adult, the resonance of songs like Alive, Even Flow and Black is so powerful that I often forget that Jeremy is even on this album, which given the fact that it was played approximately 20 times an hour on the radio and on MTV in defiance of the laws of space and time, is remarkable. Of all the music that is labeled “grunge” only Nirvana’s Unplugged and this album really seem to exist outside that time and trend.

 

  1. Recipe for Hate- I was just two or three days into high school when James Imonti passed me a cassette tape of this Bad Religion album. It blew my mind. It is another album that I have not listened to in years, but the melodies to American Jesus and Don’t Pray on Me, still linger in the back of my mind. If you aren’t going to discover punk through The Clash or The Ramones, this isn’t a bad place to get your start. I could have had much worse introductions in the form of the pop-punk wave that Green Day ushered in around this time, so I am grateful to James and to Bad Religion for sparing me that fate. Lyrically, it isn’t hard to draw the line between Bad Religion and the protest music of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seegar that I grew up on. In that respect, this album is still quite relevant. American Jesus, in particular, seems to be as poignant as ever.
  1. The Ultimate Experience- Despite being obsessed with Jimi Hendrix, I didn’t own any of the studio albums until my late teenage years. Such is the foolishness of youth, I guess. At 13, I joined one of those scammy CD clubs that sent you eight CD’s for a penny (oh, things kids of the next generation will never know) and got Clapton’s Timepieces and this Hendrix compilation. It was probably one of the things I listened to the most as a teenager, much to my folky parents utter dismay. This was the music of their teenage years and they hated it then and hated it just as much when I was teenager. For all the uncoolness that comes with Greatest Hits compilations, this is a fantastic collection and covers the Hendrix catalog amazingly well.
  1. 24 Nights- I might judge myself as uncool for buying all those greatest hits albums, but the same impulse, which was to get the highest number of the songs I liked on one album, also steered me to live albums, so I would say my youthful ignorance paid off in the long run. This Clapton album was my absolute favorite Clapton album and I started playing guitar after hearing the original Layla for the first time, so that really is saying something. This album gets bonus points for the time when I turned a pretty girl on to Bell-Bottom Blues at age 17 and got to feel like someone who knew important secret things about music.
  1. Europe 72- I love the Grateful Dead. Along with Bob Dylan and the Beatles, they are a cornerstone in the soundtrack of my life. Today, I tend to listen to the studio albums, especially American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead more than the live stuff, but this album is still one of my favorites and may be the highwater mark of the entire jam band genre. Going back to my teenage days, I could justifiably pick another Dead live compilation- Hundred Year Haul- just as easily but Europe ’72 gets the nod if just for the China Cat> Rider jam, one of my all-time favorites.
  1. Sublime- I can’t really say that Sublime had a major impact on me the way that these other albums did, but if I was making a movie set between 1994-1998, my own personal Dazed and Confused, it would have to have What I Got, Santeria, Doin’ Time and Wrong Way all very prominently featured on the soundtrack. There is no other music on earth that transports me back to high school as much as Sublime. Maybe that because Bradley Nowell died and this was basically the entirety of their run as a popular band. Maybe it is because they got played to death on the radio. Maybe it is that this music- Sublime specifically, but also ska in general- was bright and fun-sounding (even in songs about teenage prostitution and being locked up) and fit with the carefree summer days of being a teenager in a way that the grunge of those days never could. Regardless of the reason for it, there is no music on earth that takes me back to riding in J’s beat-up, bird’s egg blue Chevy Reliant quite like Sublime.