Aug 10

Guitar Lesson

I started working up “Blues Break in ‘G'” on Monday. It’s the third of the songs in G in Kenny Sultan’s Introduction to Acoustic Blues (2001, p. 26) and is a continuation of “Step It Up And Go.” I went over it in my lesson today with Jim Goelitz. I was confused by a chord fingering that Sultan suggested, but Jim said the way I was fingering it was better. There are still some rough spots when I play the song, but it’s mainly getting my fingers used to slightly different patterns. The songs have a very different feel than those in E and A and overall seem easier.

We also talked about chords and Jim introduced me to the concept of “half-stepping” into a chord change. It’s something I had often heard in music and even played, but I wasn’t familiar with the term. It consists of leading in to a chord change by playing a chord a half-step (one fret) above or below the next chord. This adds interest to the chording.

Aug 10

How much practice is enough?

As I perfectionist, I’m inclined to believe that no amount of practice is “enough.” More is always better. If your fingers are sore, it’s time to stop, but short of that, you can probably benefit from more practice.

When I first started taking lessons, Jim Goelitz, my teacher, suggested I practice twenty minutes, then spend ten minutes sitting quietly to let what I’d done sink in. I was to repeat this routine twice a day.

After a while, forty minutes a day of playing didn’t seem enough. There was so much I wanted to learn. Now I aim to practice at least sixty minutes a day. Sometimes I’ve managed to practice two hours in a day, but then there are others days when I barely manage thirty minutes. Sometimes. to my regret, the day gets away from me entirely.

In late March 2010, I started keeping a log of daily practice time, so I would know how much time I was actually spending. My weekly average so far is 5.3 hours a week. There are some weeks when I’ve managed an hour a day or close to it.

I’ve read of musicians who play several hours a day. I wish I could make the time to play more, because I have observed that practice does make a difference. As I play songs over and over, I notice improvement. I can play more smoothly, with less stumbling. My fingers gradually take over and I don’t have to consciously micromanage their movements.

I aspire to make playing the guitar “second nature,” so that through repetition and practice it becomes essentially automatic, not requiring conscious thought. The most common example of this is learning to ride a bike. Once you’ve learned, your body “knows” what to do and you no longer have to “think” about what needs to be done.

Some aspects of playing are already approaching “second nature,” but I still need to extend that to things I haven’t even begun to learn. Learning music is a never-ending process. It’s a journey without a destination.

Jul 10

Guitar Lesson

At my lesson today, I suggested to Jim that we go back to Magic Slim and the Teardrop’s “Early Every Morning” (Grand Slam, 1982). We had started going over it two weeks ago. I asked specifically about chords and choosing voicings. He showed me several chords and ways of using them to create interest. In showing me the bass line for the song’s shuffle rhythm, he said he preferred to play the C7 chord at the 12th fret so that the notes stayed on the wound strings. He thought it sounded stronger than remaining at the 7th fret. That made sense to me.

Jul 10

Guitar Practice

This week I’ve focused on exercises and songs in the Key of G from Kenny Sultan’s Introduction to Acoustic Blues (2001). I’ve been practicing “Blues in G” (p. 23) for three weeks or so and am feeling more at ease with it and can play it more smoothly. I haven’t quite mastered the patterns in measures 6 and 11, but they’re getting easier. Compared to some songs earlier in the book it’s not a difficult piece, but there are new moves that my fingers haven’t quite gotten used to. My little finger, for example, doesn’t always make it from the first string to fret the third string reliably.

On Sunday (7/25), I started practicing “Step It Up and Go”(p. 25), which adds the C and D7 chord to the G chord. Again, it’s not that difficult, but my fingers are still getting the hang of it.

Meanwhile, I continue to practice scales, chords and the songs in E and A that I’ve learned. It’s frustrating to go back to a song and discover how unruly it’s gotten during the period of neglect.

Jul 10

Pick or Finger?

I’m fascinated by the fact that the many of the blues guitarists I admire most play without a pick: John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins, Albert King, Hubert Sumlin and others. Before I paid attention to such things, I assumed that one always used a pick to play an electric guitar.

There are advantages to each approach and the sound is certainly different. I’ve read that Howlin’ Wolf told Hubert Sumlin to stop using a pick and that was how he found his style. I’ve noticed some players (Buddy Guy, for example) switch back and forth during a performance. Guy plays mainly with a pick (and he’s hard to beat for speed), but he has a magician’s touch in concealing it in his hand when he wants to play fingerstyle.

In December 2009, I started practicing rhythm and bass lines without a pick and then practiced soloing fingerstyle. The exercises and songs in Kenny Sultan’s Introduction to Acoustic Blues, which I started working with in January 2010, need to be played fingerstyle.

A pick seems to allow one to play faster, but I enjoy the more intimate physical involvement that fingerstyle playing provides. It feels too early in my development to make a choice (versatility may ultimately be the best choice), so I’ll continue to practice both ways and to explore the pros and cons of the two approaches.

Most players who use a pick, use the traditional teardrop-shaped pick. However, Muddy Waters, for example, used a thumb pick and a pick that fit on the index finger. Magic Slim also uses a thumb pick. My teacher tells me these take some getting used to. I haven’t tried them yet, but would like to experiment with them.

Jun 10

Second Anniversary

Friday, June 25, 2010 is the second anniversary of my first electric guitar lesson with Jim Goelitz at Kagan and Gaines in Forest Park, IL.

When I began taking lessons, I had no idea what I was getting in to. In retrospect, I was very naive and seriously underestimated the length of the learning curve. In spite of the years I’d spent listening to blues, I didn’t realize how challenging it was to play blues. It’s not just a matter of learning a few chords. The most common 12-bar blues form is based on “only” three chords, which might sound simple, but then there are such matters as string bends, vibrato, hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, riffs, rhythm and all the other things that contribute to the tone and sound of the blues. Putting all that together in an improvised solo is an even bigger challenge.

On the one hand, I thought initially that I would be “farther along” (whatever that means) than I am. On the other hand, I can clearly see that I have learned a lot and can now do things easily that were difficult or impossible before. One of the things that has kept me going is that I can tell that the more I play (practice, practice, practice), the better I get. Practice really does work. At the same time, I’m constantly reminded of how much I still need and want to learn.

Sometime in January, I started working on songs in Kenny Sultan’s book, Introduction to Acoustic Blues (2001). In spite of the word “introduction,” it’s not a book for beginners. I’m glad I didn’t attempt it any earlier, though I did learn the “Blues Shuffle in E,” “Single String Shuffle” (in E) and “Shuffle in A” in the early months of my lessons.

Since the first of this year, I’ve been practicing the first seven songs and still don’t feel like I’ve mastered them. I’ve definitely improved and can at times get through some of them without stumbling, but they all need more practice. There are a couple of songs (“Unknown Blues” and “The N-B Blues”) that have a few gnarly, knuckle-busting measures that may take months more to play reliably. However, I enjoy what I can play so far and look forward to improving.

One of the satisfactions of learning this country blues style of music is that the songs are intended as solo music (one plays both bass and melody), so they sound appealing without other musicians. I also want to learn what it takes to play with others, but practicing a bass line from a song isn’t as satisfying on its own.

At the moment my primary focus is learning these fingerstyle blues, but I’m also working on a parallel track of preparing for–someday–playing with other musicians. I continue to fantasize about performing both solo and as part of a group. On the fingerstyle solo track, my model is early John Lee Hooker. On the blues band track, my models are Albert Collins, Howlin’ Wolf and Magic Slim and the Teardrops. I can’t imagine playing at their level, but that’s what I’m aiming for.

Nov 09

New guitar strings

I’m enjoying using the new ten-gauge strings that my teacher Jim Goelitz installed on my guitar. I don’t find that they make bends harder, but they seem to require more pressure to do barre chords correctly (without buzzing strings). I need to practice those a lot more. I’ve gotten out of shape lately.

My Fender Squier Strat originally came with nine-gauge strings, the lightest and easiest to play gauge. The first time they were replaced, Jim recommended D’Addario strings and installed D’Addario EXL120 Nickel Super Light strings. Strings are referred to by the gauge of the lightest string (.009, .011, .016, .024, .032 and .042).

Jim has told me that heavier strings produce a better tone, but they are also not as easy to play. He uses “tens” on his Strat and suggested I try them. On October 30, 2009, he installed a set of D’Addario EXL110 Nickel Regular Light strings (.010, .013, 017, .026, .036, and .046).

On Friday (11/6), I tried the first couple of riffs in Chris Hunt’s Blues by the Bar, a book and CD on how to solo. It seemed too intimidating when I first got it on March 16, 2009. I hope it will help me develop some more interesting patterns.

Sep 09

Music Listening Analysis

My guitar teacher, Jim Goelitz, suggested that I listen to songs I’m interested in learning and do a music analysis of them. He said this would be good ear training and would help me learn to pay attention to more elements of the music. Based on his input, I developed a form that I use to record my analysis. The elements include the name of the song, the composer, the performer or band, the instrumentation, the time signature, the tempo, whether it’s “swing” or “straight” rhythm, the form of the song (e.g., 12-bar blues), the key of the song, the chords in the song, and the tuning. I also add the source album, release date, record label and length of the song.

On early recordings such as those of Howlin’ Wolf on Chess Records, it can be a challenge to hear all the instruments. It can also be difficult, especially in the beginning, to hear the chord changes and work out the progression. It’s much easier on recent recordings where instruments are on separate microphones. To determine the key, I work my way up the neck of the guitar until I find something that seems to fit. I missed a few at first, but have gotten better at it. It’s a very useful “exercise,” but requires having a good teacher.

Jan 09

Buddy Guy at Legends (1/22/09)

It was close to 11:00 p.m. when Buddy Guy came onto the stage of Buddy Guy’s Legends, his blues club on south Wabash in Chicago. He’s quite the showman and crowd-pleaser—and they ate it up (as did I). He sang some songs with a little innuendo to titillate the suburbanites and tourists in the crowd. He played free form with one song morphing into another. It was sometimes hard to see his playing because of the angle at which he stood and where I was sitting, but I enjoyed watching him. His outstanding band included drums, bass and rhythm guitars and keyboards. The downside of his set was that it was too often punishingly loud.

Guy uses a wireless system for his guitar (a Fender Stratocaster, of course), so he isn’t connected to his amplifier by a cable. While he continued to play, he walked out through the audience. It was another crowd-pleasing moment and people were firing away with their cameras. Buddy’s final piece of showbiz was throwing guitar picks from the stage into the audience or handing them out to those up front. I confess I would have liked to have gotten one if I could.

Jan 09

Guitar Lesson

At my guitar lesson (I managed to get in two 30-minute practice sessions before I went), my teacher, Jim Goelitz, talked about phrasing, specifically the three-part phrasing in a 12-bar blues (AAB pattern like the words usually follow). I tried it couple of times, but it feels challenging. Just playing a phrase that’s simple enough to remember so I could repeat it seems challenging and then to do three four-bar phrases is another challenge. I hope I have time after I get home to at least go over the John Lee Hooker riff he gave me before his vacation and which I didn’t practice. He went over it with me, so I want to practice it while I still remember what he showed me. I often have trouble remembering things he shows me if he doesn’t write them down.