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: 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.