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: Yousician


I doubt there is anything worse for a guitar player than sitting down to practice and not knowing what to practice. This might be the biggest limiting factor for people like me, who have gone well beyond beginner, but still lack any sense of mastery. It is definitely the worst part of teaching yourself and so often it leads you to just hacking away at something simple or noodling around without direction or purpose.

This problem makes a system like Yousician very appealing. Yousician is a play-along app that features customized progressions for players built around original songs and exercises. It also has a library of songs by popular artists that you can play along with. I have been playing with Yousician for a year and a half with mixed results. This week I decided to return to it to get some more structure to my practice.

It is hard to overstate just how incredible the technology of this program is. It listens to you play and tells you I you hit the right notes in real time as you play. You can slow down songs in practice mode to help master them and then try to nail them in performance mode to progress. As someone old enough to remember a time before there were even chord charts available online, this seems as futuristic as flying cars or self-fitting clothing.

But as impressive as the tech might be, you can’t help but use Yousician and think, “this is basically Guitar Hero on a real guitar.” The program gamifies playing music so much that it feels like you are really only learning to play the game of Yousician and not playing music. This feeling is reinforced by the biggest flaw with the app- you can’t print out or export any of the music to play outside of Yousician. This makes it really difficult to feel like you are mastering a song independent of the app and basically makes it impossible to play anything on your own. As a result, to date, I have only learned one song that I play on my own from Yousician and it was a pretty easy song for me to play (and to memorize) to begin with (Ain’t No Sunshine). Without being able to step away from the very easy-to-follow format of Yousician’s notation and practice with just a metronome, I feel like I never really learn anything but how to play inside Yousician and that is disappointing.

This week, I did discover one thing that I really love Yousician for, however. The program cannot be beat when it comes to practicing techniques like scales and arpeggios. One thing Yousician does really well is to force you to have great time. Because it judges you on accuracy note-by-note, there is no speeding up and slowing down to fit to the beats. You have to nail every sixteenth note in time and this makes it perfect for warming up and for technique exercise. I just wish they had more of them available. As much fun as the app can be for playing along with famous songs, it really crushes it for the more mundane elements of practice and I’ll be incorporating it into my playing for that reason for the foreseeable future.

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.