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Hi, everyone! I'd like to invite you to submit questions, problems, and challenges that have come up in your playing. The best question every month wins its author a prize, usually a Crary CD or Thundershots instructional video. Questions are judged on:
- Value to other guitarists
- Depth of despair
- Poignancy of dilemma, and my favorite...
- A sense of humor in the phrasing of the question
Decision of judge (me) is final. And of course, I will try to give a helpful and encouraging answer to your question if I can. Dan Crary
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Q: I picked up the guitar a few months ago (at age 40) for the first time in 30 years and have decided to learn how to play it. I feel like I am doing pretty well at learning what to do with my left hand, but I am confused about what direction to take with my right hand.
The music I find that I prefer is Piedmont Blues, some Jazz, and traditional/folk tunes (American, English and Irish). This kinda surprises me because for years all I listened to is Classic Rock and while I still like to listen to that genre occasionally, I don't really get into trying to play it. Another thing that surprised me is how much I enjoy the sound of the acoustic guitar.
Given that these genres are new to me, I've been exploring many different things and recently I heard your 'Thunderation' album and was transfixed. It seems like you are able to blur the line between musical genres really well, and I assume you are flatpicking on all of them. So I bought your book on flatpicking to see what 'flatpicking' is all about. I'm enjoying it, but am not sure if by learning how to play this way I am going to limit myself from being able to play other genres.
Is there some advice you can give on how to pick a right-hand style and stick to it? Bluegrass is not my favorite style, but I love the sound of your flatpicking and wonder if I could apply it to other genres. My practice sessions are getting worse now as I try to play everything TWO ways, picked or fingerstyle, and I really want to settle down on one way and perfect it. RIGHT-HAND BEFUDDLED
A: Thanks for your question and I'm glad you enjoyed Thunderation and some of my other stuff. Several suggestions to get you focused and moving ahead:
- Learning traditional and pop music on the guitar is done one-tune-at-a-time; pick a tune, work up a simple version of it, and (this is important) POLISH the simple version, and perform it for an audience somewhere. Trad music is social; you have to put it in front of an audience, open mike, church, club gig, volunteer for a charity, house party, whatever. Polishing up a piece for an audience and performing will speed up and discipline your progress.
- On a given tune, and during a given practice session, flatpick only. To get good you have to get focused for a while. Pick a tune you know can be flatpicked, work up a simple, memorized, polished version, and require your right hand to get familiar and automatic at the task of finding and striking the right string at the right time and with the right amount of force. Do not watch your right hand... make it find and strike the string by FEEL, memorize the feeling. Get this tune in hand, simple, automatic, perfect, controlled. Then you can move to the next tune. This seems slow and tedious, especially if you have an idea where you want to go, but don't miss these steps. As you develop several tunes, it will get faster.
- Then, when you have a few simple versions perfect, start making and memorizing a few variations. For more on this please see my tape series, Thundershots.
- Assign yourself not only tunes, but also songs you can play and sing; go through the same process. It's rad music, you need the discipline of playing and singing at the same time and with the same memorized, polished, perfection as with a tune.
- Don't miss the simple/polished/perfect stage, and don't confuse it with sound-like-Doc-Watson. Once you have some simple/polished/perfect pieces you can perform then you can start making them sound like the pros.
Finally, as to whether one genre will confuse or limit another? My answer is, no way. If you polish up one tune at a time, you can do it with a pop song or a bluegrassy tune, or whatever. But a practice session needs to be FOCUSED on one goal, one tune, one technique at a time, so that it starts to add up. What you describe where you thrash around changing styles and different music is a nightmare; separate the styles, focus on one polished up tune at a time. Welcome back after some years, and welcome to the world where you can flatpick any tune on the acoustic guitar if you stay focused and move ahead systematically.
Good luck and thanks for this interesting question.
Q: From one of your students at Sorefingers UK a couple of years ago and still journeying across the plectral plains, asking you to shed light on solving this dilemma of achieving volume and this familiar equation. Volume=Tension=Mistakes=Leaving the stage with your head under a blanket into a waiting car to escape the baying mob!
Seriously, how to get greater volume (and tone) performing without tensing up and fluffing the runs you can do standing on your head in the comfort of your own living room. I had thought of playing gigs in the lotus position to relax myself but my knees aren't up to it. GORDON
A: Yes we had a good time at the Sore Fingers workshops, and I'm happy to hear from one of the alumni! The problem you raise is a tough one, and I love the various metaphors you spun for it. The only thing perhaps missing is trying to play in the lotus position while also standing on your head and being covered bu a blanket. 'Have to say, I've tried this, and it doesn't work. 'Doesn't cure hiccups either.
But I'm glad to hear you're still playing and grappling with the challenges. I know this one well; as a young player I went through a crisis of feeling like I had played badly because of the task of putting it in front of an audience. I did a couple of things that helped, I'll suggest a couple.
Background: Empirical studies have been done to profile the physiological and neurological symptoms (galvanic skin response, sweat, respiration, heart rate, etc.) of different emotions. You can look them up online or in a book. Interestingly, the profile for "fear" are exactly the same as for "excitement." The only difference seems to be how we label the feeling. Call it fear, it's disabling; call it "excitement" and it can be pleasurable and enabling. Tell somebody you're excited before you play, and see the difference.
- Get enablingly mad. Not at yourself, but at the task, enough to cuss a little, grit your teeth and swear that no matter what, we're gonna' fix this.
- Be more loyal to the guitar; part of my therapeutic getting pissed off was that I reflected on my sense of loyalty to the guitar itself, I lectured myself about performing in a way that was worthy of our noble instrument.
- Play MEMORIZED pieces on stage, play it the same way, every time. When you're more experienced you can improvise, but even improv is done on memorized pieces. Practice the piece or the run exactly as you would play it on stage; do you stand up to perform? Stand up in front of a mic stand at home and practice the way you play. Playing loud requires holding the pick and operating the right hand differently, so make that an issue of practice.. do it at home exactly as you will have to in front of the crowd.
- The inverse is, when onstage, position yourself the way you've practiced, same strap position, same mic height, if you sit, find exactly the same position so your practice counts.
- When you're in front of an audience, take a second to get mentally laser-focused on the guitar and the piece. I found it helpful, while onstage, to mentally build a wall and shut out the audience, and sorta' be back in my practice space. When the tune was over, I could then resume my effervescent personality and interact in a friendly way with the audience.
Bottom line, we actually do risk a lot when we stick our neck (or ass) out in a performance. It's naked up there, you're very much on-your-own, especially in a solo situation. So it's not irrational to have trepidations and fears. But a little get mad, get focused, and get in practice with polished and memorized stuff, and they'll think you're as cool as a cucumber.
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