Jun 13

My Fifth Anniversary

I took my first electric guitar lesson with Jim Goelitz at Kagan & Gaines Music five years ago today on Wednesday, 25 June 2008. It has turned out to be a life-changing date. I’ve continued to take weekly lessons except when I’m out of town or when Jim is on vacation. When I started out, I had no idea where learning to play blues guitar might lead.

Learning to play the guitar turned out to be more challenging than I had imagined, but I also found that with each day I improved. I’ve always enjoyed learning new things and never found practicing a burden (just a challenge at times to fit in a busy day). Even when I felt frustrated learning a new chord or riff, I was encouraged by the knowledge that if I kept practicing I would eventually get the hang of it. And I always have–even if it took longer than I imagined it should have.

Almost two years ago on Friday, 29 July 2011, I attended my first weekly class with the K&G ensemble–ably led/taught by Jim Goelitz. Participating in that group has accelerated my learning process and expanded my skills in many ways. It’s also–as others in the group agree–the highlight of my week. Since I joined the group, we have performed in public six times. I would like to have more opportunities to perform and hope we can find some new venues.

It’s hard to describe what I’ve learned in the last five years. I’ve learned to play scales, chords, riffs and songs with increasing ease. I feel a much greater facility on the fretboard and an increased comfort level when playing with the group. I’ve long thought of myself as an introvert, so performing in public in front of people is quite a stretch of my previous identity. Performing is still a source of anxiety, but it has diminished considerably. Jim has often encouraged me to “dig in” and play with “more attitude,” especially when soloing. I’m working on letting go of my usual sense of restraint. I’ve come up with a new musical motto: “It’s Time to Get Nasty.”

I feel a sense of accomplishment with what I’ve learned in the past five years and have even begun to think of myself as a musician and a guitarist. Music is a lifelong path. I’m often reminded of how much I still want to learn and know that will always be the case. It’s one of the appeals of playing music.

Sep 11

Floating into the Blues

One of the most valuable techniques my teacher Jim Goelitz has taught me is his “trademarked” method of learning chords, which he calls “float and drop.” The goal is to learn the chord shapes as a grip that your hand remembers with precision. To practice chords, you very slowly position your fingers just above the strings (float) and frets you want to press for a chord. Then you very slowly drop your fingers to the strings and strum the chord to make sure it sounds clear. You repeat this process with the next chord.

I find this is an especially helpful way to practice two or more new chords when I’m having trouble getting reliably from one chord to the next. Recently, Jim had me demonstrate “float and drop” for a couple of chords that were bothering me. He noticed that I was moving too fast. He stressed that the movement needs to be like slow motion in a movie. This helps ensure accuracy and precision. Before your fingers touch the strings, they need to be in the exact position for that chord.

It may seem obvious, but in working on a transition from one chord to the next, I realized it helps to notice the most direct path your fingers can take between the two chords. Perhaps a finger stays on the same string and just moves up or down. It’s more effective to practice following this path in slow motion with “float and drop.” It may take a lot of repetition, but eventually it leads to improvement.

Once I’m starting to get familiar with a chord grip or transition, I find it helpful to practice it with my eyes closed. The ultimate goal is to “find” the chords without looking.

Jun 11

My Third Anniversary

On Wednesday, June 25, 2008, I took my first electric guitar lesson with Jim Goelitz at Kagan & Gaines in Forest Park (a nearby suburb of Chicago). Except for a few gaps of a week or two, I’ve taken a lesson every week since then.

For the first year or so, I took an hour lesson, but then cut back to 30 minutes for reasons of economy. Having a weekly lesson to prepare for has been important in helping me maintain a regular practice schedule. In the beginning I practiced 20 to 30 minutes a day–most days. More recently, I’ve tried to practice at least an hour (usually in two 30 minute segments). Sometimes I practice a total of 90 minutes, but other times I miss a day. I usually average around five hours a week and always wish I could manage more. I’m convinced that more playing time leads to more improvement.

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been playing guitar for three years. In some ways, I still feel like a beginner. Given how much there is, potentially, to learn, perhaps I always will. At the same time, when I look back, I can see how much I’ve learned so far. Scales, chords, riffs, techniques or music that once seemed challenging, if not impossible, I now can play comfortably. There are always new challenges, but fortunately I love learning new things.

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.

Dec 10

Learning from Listening to Music

When I was focusing on learning to write short fiction and took several writing workshops, the writer-teachers often expressed dismay that aspiring writers didn’t read enough good fiction. How could one learn to write without reading a lot?, they wondered.

If you’ve ever spent any time around young children, you know that one of their primary paths to learning is imitation. They pay keen attention to what’s going on around them and soak up every detail. It seems natural for them to “practice” the behaviors and activities they see adults doing–until they can do them as well.

Adults who want to learn any art form or creative activity would do well to remember the example of children. Instructional media, teachers and classes contribute to learning, but a key element is paying attention to good examples of the art one seeks to master.

Just as aspiring writers need to read, study and deeply experience good writing, so do aspiring musicians need to listen widely and deeply to the music they care about. Since I started taking guitar lessons, I’ve listened to music much more often than I used to–even though I’ve always enjoyed and loved music. Listening to music, especially blues by the masters, nurtures and encourages my love of the music and also helps me learn to play the music better.

Now that I’ve learned to play a little, I hear music in a different way. The more I know how to play, the more I can hear in the music I listen to. At the same time, I’m also trying to hear new things. What is that riff? How is the guitarist playing that passage? Could I play that?

My teacher has had me do Music Listening Analyses to encourage me to focus on certain elements in a song. In the process, I’ve listened to songs over and over. There is always more to hear. Even a relatively “simple” song has so much going on in it that it requires multiple listenings to absorb it deeply.

Whether listening for an analysis or just listening, it’s important to pay attention to the feel of the music. Music isn’t an intellectual exercise, nor is it just a matter of good technique. The ultimate goal is for “technique” to fall below a conscious level and simply play out the feelings.

Since I started taking lessons, I’ve also gone to hear live music more often. I find it helpful to see what a guitarist is doing as I’m hearing the music. However, I often can’t tell what is going on even as I’m looking, because it happens too fast.

Before I took guitar lessons, I hadn’t given any thought to ear training, but it’s obviously as important to playing music as finger training. Fortunately, listening to music I enjoy is never an onerous assignment.

In a sense, listening to music is also a form of goal-setting. I don’t expect ever to play at the level of blues mentors like Albert Collins, John Lee Hooker or Hubert Sumlin. However, as I sail over the wide seas of music, they are like the North Star, a point of orientation that guides me and keeps me on track.

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

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.

Apr 10

4 Blues Rules

1. Have fun.

2. Play loose.

3. Play with feeling.

4. Don’t worry about mistakes.

—Kenny Sultan. Blues Guitar Legends (1996)

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.