Saturday, January 26, 2013

Guitar advice for fresh punters

Anyone that's had anything to do with me since 2011 knows that I picked up a guitar and essentially have never put it down - literally. It goes everywhere with me - work trips, climbing trips, Singapore, Thailand, weekend trips - i am rarely without it (or 'them' these days). :)  

In any case, I struggled with a few things during my learning process. Now don't get me wrong - I'm still a complete novice! But - if I'd gotten this advice early on I feel it would have helped me improve faster. i searched the net heaps and some of this incorporates things i read/heard - but a fair bit are my own observations. Very well may not apply to you but worth considering.  

Further, this is probably a bit too "scientific" - after a while you definitely don't think about some of this. But figured I'd share in case it helps someone else along their guitar journey.

bar chords

Lots of people struggle with clean bar chording. I got into barring arguably quite early - i just loved the sound, reproducibility up the neck, and quick access to other muting techniques, etc. But I couldn't figure out how to make every string clean on various chords (in particular dominant 7 off the 6th string (e.g. A7), but a number weren't that clean.  

Here's some advice you'll probably get off the web:
  • Pay attention on your particular hands where the creases are. Don't line those up with a string.
  • Roll your finger in a bit.
  • You just need some time - build up that finger strength

I tried these first two mainly for months (how do you explicitly do the third!?!:). They kind of helped, but not consistently. I really couldn't figure out what was working when it was clean and what wasn't. Very frustrating. And ironic since I'm an avid climber and my fingers are actually relatively quite strong. :) What's going wrong?

my advice:

Those may all be a factor, it's hard to say in hindsight.  But for me what cleaned it all up was really the placement of the thumb and a bit of thumb strength building. Maybe I already had the finger strength though, as I was trying to push down hard with the bar finger - which you do need to do. But the key is you gotta put the thumb behind where you're bar chording - and pull freakin hard with your thumb :). Now that's the "finger" strength I personally think you need to build. 

Good news is - for me - as soon as I tried this I instantly saw consistent results (when i pulled hard with the thumb - it always cleaned it up) - that alone was super rewarding - mystery over. And second - it didn't take long at all to build up the strength. In 1-2 months i was consistently having clean sounding bars -well for every 'one finger' bar, anyway. 

Two finger bars (e.g major off the fifth if formed with ringer finger) are a bit harder. You've got to be able to contort your finger into gumbyville for these! Here - you duck tape your ring finger back every night whilst you sleep to increase the bend. I'll explicitly point out that I'm joking for those that don't know my humour. ;) But you can form the chord differently if you can't get the 2 finger bar. I'll leave you to search the web for numerous other options there - documented in detail quite well. In fact it's good to know the different techniques anyway - they come in handy and can give your hand a rest.

Clean hammer-ons 

I think generally most people will find hammer ons quite easy. But if you're soloing - or even playing a song where you're in a scale/moving and hammering (e.g. clapton's tears in heaven) - i found it hard to consistently have the hammer on clean.

Again - what I found is the thumb is critical here. When you're moving up patterns - don't just move the fingers - you gotta move that thumb! Getting the thumb behind where you're fretting/hammering seems to clean everything up.

The major scale/modes

Practicing scales (pentatonic, major, minor, etc) and arpeggios is key if you're interested in soloing/improv (my personal fav). For me memorizing the patterns was quite simple - you can get them online or numerous books - visualize them and you'll be flying in no time (seems much easier/faster on an electric btw). I am very amateur at soloing and as such am definitely not giving advice there - but rather on a difficulty I experienced in comprehension of what is arguably the simplest topic in the world - and in fact likely most familiar to all of us in the western world: the major scale. So why did I find it confusing? Well a couple reasons really - I'll try to explain here, potentially incorrectly - very keen on feedback if anyone has it.

Interestingly, for both these confusions if you talk with someone quite advanced (i asked quite a few) they don't seem to really be able to relate to the confusion. I *think* that's because back in the day - these ambivalent sources of information weren't available when they learned (gotta love information overload sometimes). Further, they probably never query for this online as they already know; if they did they would already understand so not be confused. Or maybe I'm just a dumb@ss. ;)

Confusion 1 - They're sayin' different things Jan

Chuck major scale patterns into googlie, and you'll get back some patterns. For example this site shows the patterns for G major scale:

G Major - 5 Patterns

You can see this because if you look at the root node ('R') - it's always on the 'G' (and of course if you're familiar with this you'd just know that position). 

But then you check your handy music theory book - and you see a different set of patterns - this time 7.

And another googlie:

G major - 7 patterns

What's going on here? Well apparently :) there's kind of two sets of patterns. One is often called 'CAGED' patterns, the other '3 notes per string' patterns. I say kind of because sometimes the patterns listed will be from one group and some from another - and sometimes they'e a mixture of the two in one pattern -  author's personal fav I suppose - not sure.  I think the theory goes that CAGED are "easier" - you don't have to move your hand as much (hence caged in), whereas 3 notes per are more "advanced" but can require more movement up and down the fret board.

Here's a couple of sites that address this:

Purported advantages of 3 notes per string
CAGED & 3 notes diagrams

What you'll see if you analyse  is that the patterns are quite similar.. They're just utilizing a note on the next string - and as you start to comprehend the fretboard layout more this makes perfect sense. Here's an example of caged on the left and 3 notes per string on the right:

NB: images courtesy of

I'm sure some will argue you in fact should not just memorize patterns, and then you'd realize the notes were close by/as per the close pattern - and that's true. But when you're first starting out memorizing the patterns, let alone the entire fretboard is a bit much (I'm still working on it now!)

Confusion 2 - That doesn't sound like the major scale

Ok now that we understand the scales to practice.. let's get playing!  I'll just follow the whole pattern. Let's start with the first one my teacher gave me:

NB: image courtesy of

Easy. starts on the root node (black dots here). Bit of a stretch on the fingers when starting out, but sounds good. I can do it.. that sounds like something i know! I'm back in kindergarten music class. Ok time to progress..

Let's try the caged version of the above pattern: 

NB: images courtesy of

Again let's follow the whole pattern - for the CAGED starting with F# (2nd fret, 6th string). Hmm.. something doesn't sound quite right. Let's try the 3 note version on the right above- where we start on G (3rd fret,6th string) - yeah that sounds better..hmm..

Ok let's try these:

NB: images courtesy of

Huh? I don't know something just doesn't sound right? At least that was my perspective - it just didn't sound like the major scale.  Well at this point I won't say too much - because it seems to cause great controversy when I try to discuss it with people (Lots of conflicting views imho), and despite much online reading and a few books - I am a Complete novice in music theory.

What I can say is:

  • When you start playing a scale on any note other that the root note (the 'black dot' or 'R') - you *may* be playing a mode.  I say may because some vehemently refute that this is what a mode is :). Good ol' wikipedia offers some input for the inquisitive, which arguably suggests they are in fact 'modern' modes from my understanding but not trying to bring up that debate! :) Just for reference. Remember - I may be a dumb@ss and completely misinterpreting ;), and it's clearly not that simple.
  • When you play from the root note, it all sounds good. ;) Or at least like the scale you're familiar with. After a while it all starts to sound ok but initially I could hardly play the scale if played in the pattern entirety.
  • If requested to play a scale - I recommend you play it from the root note and end on the corresponding note one octave up. This last point I experienced the most irony/contradiction with, but I won't delve into that here. It's complex and also has a lot to do with the extremely subjective/relative nature of music. Technically I don't think you actually have to - but for now - JUST DO IT. ;) Makes everyone happy.. most of the time.

Having spent all this time on the major scale - I must fess that actually mostly I utilize the pentatonic. But - clearly depends on the style of music you enjoy - and even further you can incorporate the scales together which is predominantly how I utilize the major/minors. Anyway have a go you'll work it out for yourself.

i got this wicked guitar, now what do i do?

So, major confusions aside - now what do you do? How you practice clearly is highly dependent upon your goals. As such giving advice here is a bit impossible. But again I probably have a couple suggestions that *may* help. 

Some people claim they don't know what to play. For me that was never actually an issue - I pick it up and can't put it down - until 4am sometimes - although complaining neighbours have stopped that!!.. :)  But even how I practised (even currently) was/is not the best. So clearly take this with a grain of salt as I'm figuring it out myself - but this is my current perspective:

play songs you like

I started with private lessons from the moment I got my guitar.  That's a good idea - i think - although arguably you could get things for free off the web too. We played a number of classics - and I am very appreciative of both teachers I've had. But - you'll be most passionate about songs you really love. I left this out the first year really because I was quite focused on what I was learning in lessons. I suggest from day one you take at least a couple of songs you really love and learn them.

play with music 

(this was my failure). I go off into another world when i play guitar. But it's crucial to play with the actual music and to beat (a metronome is key here). A practice amp can make this very easy but you don't need anything that serious to get started. Just play the songs however you normally would. Sounds common sense but many of us don't actually do it.

vary your practice

If you are very keen to improve, incorporating different techniques into your practice is quite essential. Perhaps one night chords, another strumming patterns, then arpeggios, but each night also working on a favourite song.  I actually got that advice from my teacher Angus and it does help your progression - when you actually utilize it. :P It's pretty easy to get caught up in same songs but hey if you're enjoying it - it's all good, eh.

play with others

This is so ironic for me to put this in here - as it's exactly what I need to do that I'm not. 
It's hard though - finding someone to jam with - around your level, on similar schedules, in an environment that tolerates noise. hmmm... well if you can jam with a group, I believe this will exponentially escalate your learning.

utilize all opportunities to learn

This is probably debatable and a bit a function of my personality/drive (i feel guilty if I'm not learning all the time/being productive). In any case - this isn't about me just highlighting the potential bias on this one.

But I argue there are so many opportunities to learn even if you don't have a guitar in your hands:

  • When you're listening to music - start to listen/break down the different guitar (and other instruments) types. Try to figure out the notes being played. I suck at this but want to improve
  • read. and best to practice at same time. buy music theory books - and i'll plug a personal favourite - 'Spartiti's - Everything Rock And Blues Guitar Book'. Picked this one up from my guitar teacher actually - if you're in Sydney and want lessons check out Sydney Guitar Lessons!!
  • when you're going to bed - go over things in your head - envision the pentatonic, major scale, appegio, etc patterns. Think about all the notes on the entire fretboard - take one (e.g. F) - think about where it is on each string. While you're at it - think about how to form various f chords.
  • When you're at live gigs - watch like a hawk and listen like a (I don't know? who listens well?? ;)). You can pick up SO much from chords, to strumming techniques, acoustic setup, distortion and other techniques, to charisma and audience interaction. Of course not at all like I'm ever going to perform on that last point!! But.. it's all part of what makes a good musician in my opinion. There's so much to learn from just watching - and probably even more important listening - at live gigs.

Your fingers hurt

You pansy. Toughen up.

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