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: 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: 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: Days When You Don’t Have It


One thing that I have been thinking about this week while practicing is what happens on those days when you just don’t have it. I don’t mean days when you lack motivation. That is one thing, of course, but I have found that that is something you just have to fight through. I am talking about the days when you just don’t have it in the sense that you just can’t play well. When you can’t do what you usually do. When everything is forced and it all comes out bad.

I had a few days like that this week and I started to think about them.

What is going on when this happens?

What does it mean that it is happening?

How can I reduce the chances of this happening?

What should I do when I feel this happening?

With these questions on my mind, I started looking into skill acquisition to see if I could find some answers. One interesting article I found came from a sports science site called Humankinetics.com. It outlines the three stages of motor learning- Cognitive, Associative, and Autonomous. Most of the time we spend practicing is spent between the associative and the autonomous. The article explains the associative stage as “is transforming what to do into how to do.” So I might know from the sheet music that I need to play a G chord, but now I need to learn the motor pattern that makes that happen at the moment it needs to happen. Now, making a simple G chord is pretty easy for me at this point, so that particular example is closer to the autonomous level of learning, where motor skills can be reproduced automatically, leaving room for your mind to think about other things. To really play anything, we need to push most of the skills into the autonomous level.

Not being a cognitive scientist, I can only make a few guess at what the underlying causes of these off-days might be, but based on a simple understanding of these learning stages, I think the problem lies in the fact that there is no clear line between associative and autonomous for the person doing the learning. After the fact, those might be distinct categorizations, but if you are playing music, especially new, challenging music, you are going to spend the majority of your time in the border between the free-flowing autonomous actions and the more deliberate associative steps needed to get there.

It then becomes easy to mistake where you are at any given time. Some of the things that you might have assumed were locking into an autonomous process are actually not there yet. Throw in additional distractions, poor sleep or some other stressor and those not-quite-autonomous actions need more deliberate attention than they did yesterday. It feels like you “don’t have it” because your grip on the skill is less firm than it seems. Maybe you can do something autonomously in perfect conditions, but that is not the end of the road.

I think I can take away from this two important points. First, if you feel like you “don’t have it” any given day, you never “had it,” at the level you need it to be at. Second, when this happens, the best thing to do is to take note of it and take a step back and re-cement the basics behind what you are struggling with.

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.

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: Gone Loopy


This week I added the ultimate toy for any bad guitar player- a loop station pedal. I have considered getting one for years but held off because I always felt like I should work on my playing and not add gear that would just add to the goofing off at the expense of actual playing. With so much more time on my hands these days, I figured it was a good time to grab one. I also feel like I am reaching a point in my playing where this is something that has a good deal of value for me. All this time in quarantine practicing regularly has got me to a place where I am moving beyond playing in just one scale at a time for improvisations and to a place where I need to be more focused on the song, its melody and the changes. Being able to create quick loops is very helpful in pushing my playing forward.

Of course, the first thing that I realized when I threw the pedal down on the floor is that I am pretty bad at using it. I have had no trouble making loops by recording to a computer, but having to hit the pedal to end my playing and start the loop just threw me for a… you know.

 Some of the time, I just didn’t hit tap the pedal hard enough for anything to happen. I mean, I am not slamming my foot down when I tap the beat out with it. No problem. I’ll just stomp on the damn thing. They call them stop boxes, right? That worked! All good now…

Except… wow, that first beat is kind of loud. I guess when I stomped the box I also hit the one beat twice as hard as necessary. At least I can hear where the one is. How do I reset this stupid thing?

With clearing the loops from the pedal mastered, it’s time learn to walk and chew gum. I isn’t too difficult to stop slamming the first chord down to start the loop, but ending the loop is trickier. I might be a bad guitar player, but I would be horrendous drummer. I tap the pedal again at the end of the loop and hit it too softly. So it doesn’t stop looping.

Now this thing is in my head. My foot is on the pedal, here comes the end of loop. Bam! Foot to the floor, we have looping! But wait… it’s a half-beat too soon. Take two. Half beat too late (and I slammed on the one as I stopped the loop, just for good measure). Resetting people, going again in five. Such is the life of a bad guitar player.

Ultimately, the pedal is actually pretty ease to use and even on the first day I am making more quality loops than bad ones after a few tries. The one thing that does continue to give me issues is the way the pedal works for adding a second loop. On the Boss Loop Station RC-1, when you end the loop it, it begins play back and continues recording what you are playing to create another loop. Since I am mostly just practicing improvising over chords, one loop is enough for me most of the time. This means I have to hit the pedal twice to stop recording as the playback continues. I forget that about half the time and end up recording the solo as a second loop. This feature also makes it slightly difficult to record the loop and jump into a solo right on the first beat without getting an extra note or two in the loop. This way of functioning is incredibly cool though if you are looking to create more layered sounds or write music because it is easy to play one part, start the loop and jump into a second part. That is something I will definitely play with more as I get more comfortable with this new toy.

After a few days of playing with this thing, I feel kind of foolish for not getting a loop station earlier. I don’t have a ton of people that I play with (and now that number is down to none) and this is a quick and easy solution that definitely beats play-along tracks and having to open up recording software just to lay down a eight-bar pattern. It’s fun to laugh at all the mistakes I make using it, but it is incredibly simple to use even for a pretty lousy guitar player like me.

Diary of a Bad Guitar Player: Feeling vs Counting


I have been thinking about rhythm a great deal this week after writing about “locking-in” last week. Rhythm is so essential to music- play it poorly and you will sound terrible, play it well and even simple things shine. But while rhythm is an essential concept, it is not a simple one. Playing with great rhythm doesn’t just mean being precisely on time with a metronome’s beat. Great players will push and pull the beat but never lose it or sound off. Small changes in emphasis go a long way to giving the beat it’s power.

One thing that I have noticed in my playing is that I tend toward two extremes in rhythm. I will either feel the beat or count the beat. When I am feeling the beat, I am usually playing along to a recording or playing with the Yousician program and the full band is there to tell me where the beat is. I might be able to count it some as I am going along but I am not there counting each beat. My foot is tapping and I might be playing in time perfectly (or just murdering the time, depending on how well I know the part I am playing) but my mind is not focused on counting each beat.

This is nothing like the way I play when I am practicing new songs or concepts. Then, I have the metronome on and I am counting every beat, even every note, in my head without exception. In this scenario, I am usually the only one playing or maybe I am playing to a backing track I laid down, but I am not supported by a full accompaniment of sounds playing in time.

Both of these relationships to the beat are important but, for me, at this point, they are very distinct and very different. When I am counting the beat carefully and precisely, I am forcing all of my playing, pushing the sound to exactly their correct place in the beat and, if I am off, I am usually rushing notes or catch up or falling apart completely and needing to start over. When I am feeling the beat, I am playing looser and if I am off, I will either just hang back to catch the rhythm again or I will so lost that I will be unable to find the beat correctly, ear-cringing will follow.

What I want to do now is find a way to do both in both scenarios. In those times when I am playing along to recordings, I want to push myself to keep count and be more directly conscious of the exact time. In playing alone or practicing, I want to ease back from needing each note to have its place in time voiced in my head and feel the beat I am creating without depending so much on that kind of over-counting. I think playing with the metronome, leaving out beats, and playing other games like that with it will help, but ultimately, great time is probably just something that you have to develop by constantly playing and counting and feeling the beat.