Apr 13

Learning to Sing

Ever since I first started taking guitar lessons in 2009, I’ve fantasized about one day learning to sing. All my blues heroes from John Lee Hooker to Buddy Guy sing as well as play guitar. I’ve imagined being able to sing and play songs both solo and with a band, but I’ve had almost no experience singing. I never sang in a school or church choir. I don’t even sing in the shower very often. If I’m by myself in the car, I’ll try to sing along with familiar blues songs. Nevertheless, singing plays such a central role in the blues–the music evolved from field hollers and work songs without instruments–that it feels important to learn to sing.

Up until now it has seemed like I had enough of a challenge just learning the guitar, but now I’m taking a few baby steps.

It continues to amaze me that one could both play and sing at the same time. At my 2 April guitar lesson, I mentioned to my teacher that I had tried singing along (at home alone) with one of the “simplest” songs our ensemble does, Bill Wither‘s “Ain’t No Sunshine,” but couldn’t keep the chords going reliably. Jim assured me that it was a skill that could be learned. He had me sing the notes of the blues scale as I played it up and down the neck and then said I should continue to practice that.

I started learning the Circle of Fourths on the sixth and fifth string early on in my practicing. As Jim insisted, I always sang the notes as I played them. My focus was more on learning the notes on the fretboard than on singing. I continue to practice the Circle regularly.

!Circle of Fourths

Now I’ve made singing the notes of the blues scale a regular part of my practice. At my 17 April lesson, Jim had me sing and play the scales and said I had good pitch, which was encouraging.

This reminds me of my earliest guitar lessons when the simplest finger exercises were a challenge. I now know from experience that practicing leads to improvement, so perhaps singing the blues isn’t so remote a fantasy.


Jun 11

Do I need a guitar teacher?

Many famous blues players were or are “self-taught.” They learned to play guitar by listening to other musicians play, or by listening to radio or to records (remember those big black disks?). They kept listening and kept trying to figure out how to make the sounds they heard with their own guitars. If they were lucky, a member of their family or a friend might show them how to play. Or they might live where they could see and hear a local player. Blues greats from John Lee Hooker to Buddy Guy have learned this way and you can’t argue with the results they achieved. They obviously spent many hours “woodshedding” to develop their skill. It took devotion, commitment, persistence, passion and perhaps some obsession with music. And, of course, some talent.

Nowadays, aspiring guitarists have a lot more resources to draw on. In addition to recordings in your preferred format, there are dozens of instructional books (often with a CD), instructional or concert DVDs, as well as the vast resources of the Internet. The YouTube website alone has thousands of short videos of performance or instruction (though the quality varies).

When I decided to learn guitar, I wanted to begin with a teacher. I thought this would make it easier to get off to a good start and avoid developing bad habits that I would have to unlearn. People differ in how they learn best, but working with a teacher has proved to be good for me. Most of the learning process is still in my hands (literally as well as figuratively), but I believe I’ve learned more and learned it better by having a teacher.

There are two principal benefits to me. While I am very motivated to learn, I still enjoy the “discipline” of having a regular weekly lesson to prepare for. I like having that “deadline” to help structure my time and help me maintain priorities among all the competing tasks and responsibilities. (I’m very curious and interested in a lot of things, so one of my biggest challenges is setting priorities and focusing on what’s most important.)

Even more important is having an experienced and knowledgeable musician to guide me along the path. Of course, Jim Goelitz, my teacher shows me how to play and demonstrates techniques, but he also can watch me play and advise me how to improve. He’ll suggest a better fingering or a very slight change in hand position to get a better sound. For me, it’s invaluable to have someone who notices things that I don’t. I can usually tell if I play a wrong note or don’t make a chord change in time, but he notices if I’m playing the right notes in the wrong rhythm, for example.

I feel very fortunate that I happened to find a teacher who is (1) a good musician, (2) a good teacher, and (3) a good fit for me.

I also draw on other resources: books, CDs and DVDs. Living in the Chicago area, I’m lucky to have easy access to a lot of blues clubs, live concerts and festivals. All of that contributes, but I’m convinced my playing would have developed quite differently without a teacher.

Jul 10

Laurie Morvan Band

A band comes to town that you’ve never heard of. You check out their video on the Web. They’re playing at a club a few blocks away, so you take a chance. It pays off.

I saw the Laurie Morvan Band at Fitzgerald’s and was impressed. She’s a skilled guitarist, a good singer, and a lively performer. She had a tight band with Pat Morvan, her ex-husband, on bass, Tom Salyers on electric keyboard and Lisa Grubbs on backing vocals. They put on a good show, one that CDs can’t capture.

Laurie Morvan Band

Laurie Morvan Band plays the blues at Fitzgerald's

Morvan mostly sang original songs, but also covered two Albert Collins songs (“If You Love Me Like You Say” and “A Good Fool Is Hard to Find”), as well as “Messin’ with the Kid” and Muddy Waters’ “Got My Mojo Working.”

Her approach to the blues struck me as in the modern rock-pop vein, with less Delta than I like. It’s hard to explain, but it has a different feel to me. I thought she was very good at what she did. I also liked some of her original songs, but her style of blues is not one I aspire to. Needless to say, I’d love to be able to play at her level someday.

She has recorded four CDs, including Out Of The Woods (1997), Find My Way Home (2004), Cures What Ails Ya (2007), and Fire It Up! (2009).

Gear: Laurie Morvan played a 1956 reissue black Fender Stratocaster with gold pickguard from the Custom Shop. She used several effects pedals including a wah wah plugged into a 2006 Tone King Meteor II 40-watt head & cabinet.

Additional photographs of the Laurie Morvan Band are here.

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.