Tags: guitar


attn guitarists

How do you quickly switch fingerings from Em to Bm? I've been practicing for months and there's still a brief delay whenever I do that particular transition, since my middle finger, ring finger, and pinky can't move into Bm fast enough. I know you're supposed to choose the fingering for each chord that most efficiently follows the previous chord, but so far I haven't found anything better for Bm than x13421. (I'm fretting Em as 023000. I've tried 034000, too, but that seems even more awkward.) Any advice?

private reading: music theory

A couple of days ago I was practicing a song for which I had memorized tabs from the Internet, and I realized that the chords I was playing were exactly the same as Pachelbel's Canon. This shouldn't have come as a surprise to me--I'd already seen the now-infamous Pachelbel Rant--but these chords weren't just based on Pachelbel's Canon; they were Pachelbel's Canon. I'd think that the transcriber had cheated--that he realized that the song had a I V vi iii / IV I IV V chord progression and wrote it down in the key of G without even bothering to listen to the song--if not for the fact that he actually transcribed the melody wrong. The song would sound almost right if you sung along to his tab, but he was half a step off in a couple places; if you played it as I V vi iii / IV I IV V exactly, you would get something that sounded far closer to the original.

Now lots of songs imitate the Canon--the Beatles' "Let It Be" goes I V vi IV / I V IV I--but this is the first time I'd heard the Canon's chord progression copied exactly.

This is not to say that the song's original composer had the creativity of a brick. To the contrary, it was impressive that he added enough of his own touch to the performance that after years of singing the song, hearing it on the radio, learning to play it and so on I never managed to recognize the distinctive I V vi iii that comprises the accompaniment. Only now can I not listen to the song without thinking of Pachelbel. But...it was a bit of a shock.

Intrigued, I hit up Wikipedia and about.com, bought a book on chord theory from Guitar Center, and, well, whoa.

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I could have learned all this stuff from a book--I could have learned all this stuff much better from a book--but it would have been infinitely less exciting than discovering it by myself.

one disadvantage of self learning

Some days I pick up Shandy and sound almost listenable. Other days I sound like I've never touched a guitar before.

I think the difference is stress.

These past few days I have been sounding progressively worse. My rhythm is nonexistent, my strumming patterns make no sense, and I can't even fret a simple Dmaj without looking at the fretboard. It wasn't until today that I realized this streak of mediocrity is being caused by bad habits. If I don't consciously pay attention to my posture, I arch my back into the guitar (so I elbow myself in the chest when reaching for higher frets), fret the strings with the flats of my fingers, and pinch the center of the pick between my thumb and forefinger instead of pressing the top edge against the side of my forefinger with my thumb. All very, very bad things. If I had a teacher he or she would occasionally stop me and say, "No! Wrong! Stop doing that!" but all I've got to keep me in order is the occasional reality check.

Going to spend some time going back to basics.
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the world ends with you

The federal government bought out AIG. They didn't want to send the wrong message to other insurance companies, so the conditions were harsh--Uncle Sam gets a 80% stake in the company and veto power over its leadership, and the company has to pay off all the money the government lent it (all $85 billion or so) at 11% interest. This is essentially an emergency government takeover of a very important private institution. Libertarians are already crying foul (and socialists rejoicing), but the implications of this move are for the future to decide. What matters is that any money you may have lost in the Lehman brothers collapse (aside from the falling value of stocks, which will hopefully eventually be recoverable) is insured. Better still, British bank Barclays has bought out Lehman Brothers's consumer assets, including all the accounts people had with them, so even former Lehman customers can breathe a little easier. For now, a Great Depression style collapse has been avoided.

That's not to say the markets are fine, or even on the road to recovery. Despite the buyout of AIG there was another crash today--the Dow fell 450 points--and now the last two major independent brokerages, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, are in immediate danger of suffering the fate of their peers. On TV news Morgan Stanley's already talking about fleeing into the arms of some other firm (any other firm), and Goldman Sachs is reporting record losses. With Bear, Lehman, and Merrill already gone, the last two horsemen of the apocalypse are getting ready to ride, sending investors fleeing to the safety of their teddy bears. Those teddy bears are the safest investments on the market, the ones you only invest in if you are okay with making no profit at all--the strength of the market for gold and Treasury bonds today was what one commentator called "absolutely absurd". Apparently (and I can mention this because it's old news) there was even a run on mattresses in Manhattan today. Some claim this is because investors are sleeping in their offices to monitor the situation; others say it's because it's the last safe place for them put their money. My guess is that they just want a flat surface to lie on while the market fucks them in the ass.

But you know what? I really can't bring myself to care. With the government running AIG and Congress holding emergency session after emergency session to intervene, there is now a solid wall of cash between what is going on in Wall Street and everyday life for ordinary Americans. Lots of very rich people right now are going to be a lot poorer, and Wall Street is undergoing some historic and irreversible changes, but unless commodities don't hit rock bottom (you have to hit rock bottom to bounce back), it's not worth losing sleep over anymore. This isn't my game. In the office the two TVs we always have on are flashing red arrows and using vocabulary like "meltdown" and "historic" and "epic proportions"--if I hear "in my X years in the business, I've never seen anything quite like this!" one more time I'm going to have to choke somebody--and dethroned CEOs are screaming "I lost my net worth over this. My entire net worth!!" on the news and folks in the office are ending personal calls with "Don't jump," and I just go SHUT UP WORLD and code. The Man (the political-corporate elite, not some illusory white racist conspiracy) squeals real loud when he gets punched in the balls, but it's got nothing to do with me. For now, you guys are good, I'm good, America's good, and Wall Street can go to hell.

I hate money. I don't want to post about finance on this blog ever again.

So tonight I went to see my Oberlin acquaintance Tom Curtin perform at the Sidewalk Cafe in the Lower East Side. Now that I'm a novice (not even amateur) guitarist myself, I tend to get mixed feelings when I see a really talented, better-than-amateur musician performs in front of a really small crowd. Don't get me wrong, it was a good show--a really good show. Tom's quite formidable with an acoustic, and he's reached that rare level of mastery in which his passion for the music and his technical expertise perfectly augment, not interfere with, each other. That's a very enviable quality, and watching his fingers move over the fretboard as he belted out soulful self-penned melodies about gay senators and the twin children of necromancers helped me understand that playing that well takes so much more than strumming the right chords to the right beat. If he was kind enough to write up the tabs for his songs, I could probably learn one in a month, but it'd take years before I could know the instrument well enough to perform with his candor and musicality, much less bring the songs I've written to life the way he does. His lyrics are silly, often frivolous--they seem to hint at greater meaning, the way a lot of indie folk bands do, until you listen closely and realize that singing "There are flies in my mouth!" over and over again doesn't actually mean anything but "There are flies in my mouth!" And yet there's so much genuine feeling in the way he sings "There are flies in my mouth!" that you can't help but feel moved by the tragedy of all those poor insects trapped within his maw. That's the difference between a true musician, like Tom, who has mastered his instrument well enough to focus on the music and not the playing, and a novice, like me, who can only strive to imitate the sounds he likes to hear. What's a little depressing is that his talent was not proportional to the attention he got. I understand it was a Wednesday night in an obscure restaurant/bar in the Lower East Side, but there were maybe eight people there tonight, and I think most of them knew Tom personally. They were the people who would come see him and cheer and clap even if he wasn't an amazingly talented musician. Does Tom Curtin even know how good he is?

(This is his MySpace page, by the way. As of now, he has two songs up there, "Noble One" and "The Optometrist Song." Neither of them are his best, but they're both pretty good.)

Also...I will never be one of the cool kids. But that's a rant for another day.

most awesome beat training method ever

Or, how to learn to play along with drums without being in an actual band:

1) fire up the Hydrogen drum machine (freeware!)
2) play demo "Diddly" or "Jazz"
3) improvise!

This is great because you can't settle into an easy strum/chord pattern and stay there--the drums keep mixing it up, and so will you. If you're a n00b like me, have fun fumbling over strings whenever your brain starts thinking, "hmm, some melody would be nice."

I wonder if there's a way to randomly play single-measure rock and jazz drum patterns in 4/4 time, so that the drum machine really is improvising along with you.

(Lisa, I guess you could call this "getting down with Hydrogen.")
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you must be level 35 to wield this instrument

As blessed as I am to have a muse at all, it's sometimes frustrating how fickle it is. Especially with music. I was literally incapable of writing songs until maybe two or three years ago--music just never came to me the way words and images do. But now I hear album after album of never-performed songs in my head--and I can't play a single one.

Naturally, my writer side and my (neophyte) musician side are always arguing.

Writer: Hey, why don't you try this one? Sounds real nice, and I worked real hard on the lyrics.
Musician: Sure, if I taught myself drums. And bass guitar, and cello, and harmonica. And ten years of voice training.
Writer: Okay, then, how about this one? This one is all guitar.
Musician: Two guitars.
Writer: You could record and overdub.
Musician: If I could play at double my maximum tempo and still stay on beat, yeah. Oh, and that second guitar is an electric bass. I hope you have $200 and lots of time on your hands.
Writer: Fine then. Geez. How about this one--it's just one guitar, and all chords you know, to boot.
Musician: You hear that voice singing along?
Writer: Yeah?
Musician: Do I look like a black teenage soprano girl to you?
Writer: Fine! This one...this one is just chords. You can alternate between them and these root notes and do a nice slash chord strum. Surely you can play this. Surely.
Musician: Listen to this note.
Writer: Yeah, it's an open low E. So?
Musician: Your highest root note is a fifth below the lowest note a six string acoustic can play. And that wicked A/C chord? Ask me again when my thumb has grown an inch.
Writer: Are you always this much of an asshole?
Musician: Look, pal, if you were three months old and still couldn't play songs you started on your first week, you'd be pretty cranky too.

On the plus side, I'm almost all the way through guitar.about.com's lesson series! Now I just need to practice some more tabs so that I can actually turn all that fancy technique stuff into music. :)

And oh yeah, fellow guitar n00bs take note--I found a guitar book that probably doesn't suck (or so plenty of folks on the Internet say). Apparently the book is much more difficult than strictly necessary to teach you how to play the instrument, but it augments technique with music theory, sight reading, and other skills you can't learn from playing tabs from the Internet--perfect for those of us who missed the chance to take Music Theory 101 at the Con. Amazon.com reviews say that this book was a common college textbook in the 1970s, and the high number of used copies for sale (and the recent publication of a fancier DVD edition) means you can snag a used copy for like six bucks. I've ordered one over Amazon--will probably have more to say once it arrives.
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    myself fumble-improvising over the riff from Neil Young's "Cowgirl in the Sand"
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like a muthafuckin' riot

Oberlin alumni acoustic coffeehouse at DaBhang on West 8th! Happy, happy, happy, happy. Unplugged music is my soul made flesh! Er...sound! Or...or some less drunken metaphor that actually works.


This is the first all-acoustic show I've seen since starting to learn guitar, and consequently I couldn't stop staring at performers' fingers. It's amazing how wide a variety of styles there are, and how performers from so many different technical backgrounds all make beautiful music. Jared Glenn's got some great fast-strum, chord-driven songs with intellectual, driven lyrics; that Brazilian dude has restrained picking and pleasing Spanish chord progressions; Tom Curtin has Paul McCartney verve and crazy barre jumps; and Anna goes her own way and fingerpicks whatever sounds best match her poetry, scales be damned. You know how in the blitzball minigame in Final Fantasy X, whenever an opposing player hits you with Poison Shot or Sleep Tackle, "PRESS TRIANGLE!!" will flash across the screen, and if you hit the triangle button at just the right time you'll still get hit by the move, but you'll learn to do it yourself? It's exactly like that. "Learn Fingering" and "Learn Strum Pattern" are my Reaction Commands. First thing I did when I got home was pick up Shandy and improv some chord progressions from what I had learned. Felt good, and sounded better.

I don't give myself enough credit, guitar-wise. Don't get me wrong, I'm still very much a novice, and I'm still too uncoordinated to sing and play at the same time. But all that practice is finally paying off.

But back to the show. Oh man. Lots of experimental stuff--two guys who were involved in the theater production of Lost Highway at Oberlin were there, and it showed. Dueling basses, sax/trombone/percussion jazz improv, random screaming scat--it was like sitting outside the Con listening to the TIMARA people record samples. (Make of that what you will.) With some better lighting and one dollar chocolate chip cookies it would have pretty much been the Cat.

Also I met lots and lots of people I only sort of knew, and as much as social interaction wears me out and confuses me it does good to drink deep after a drought.

Oh man. I've needed this. I've needed this so bad. Sweet muuuuuuuusic. And people. And coming home and strumming those fingertips grey.
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    Rock Plaza Central - I Am An Excellent Steel Horse (with Tafelmusik)
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