5. My First Year of Making Music

My first step in learning to play the guitar was practicing a four-finger exercise that involved fretting a string with each finger of the left hand in turn and picking the string with the right hand. It doesn’t sound hard, but it was more of a challenge than I expected. A year later, it’s hard to remember why it wasn’t easy.

Then I began practicing the G-minor blues scale. After I was comfortable with the first position of the scale in all keys (fortunately, the fingering is the same as you move up the neck), I added the second, third, fourth and fifth positions. I was pleased to notice that learning each new position got progressively easier.

At the same time, I began learning a few simple blues chords. The big challenge was fingering barre chords, which require you to press down all six (or five) strings with your index finger while pressing one or more additional strings with other fingers. It took a lot of practice to get these chords to sound right (without buzzing) and my left hand quickly got tired. It took most of the year to be moderately comfortable playing these. I’m still practicing on getting the “grip” of a chord reliably. When I watch musicians play without looking at their guitar, I’m in awe. I can’t imagine how long it will take me to get to that point.

Among the other building blocks was memorizing the “Circle of Fourths” (also called the Circle of Fifths) for the sixth and then fifth string. This is helpful in learning where notes are on the fretboard. I’m still working on learning the fifth string.

One of the essential blues rhythms is the “shuffle,” which is based on a triplet rhythm with the middle note missing. I learned to play “Shuffle in A,” “Boogie in A,” and “Blues Shuffle in E,” from Kenny Sultan’s Introduction to Acoustic Blues (2001).

After I was able to get around some of the scales, my teacher recommended a book of music with a play-along CD:  Ultimate Blues Jam Session for Guitar. I began trying to improvise with some of the tracks on the CD. Even at my initially primitive level of skill, it was fun to play with music. This is one of the most challenging aspects of playing, but also one of the most creative and satisfying—especially when my soloing feels in the groove with the music. I still have a long way to go, but I’m gradually adding to what I can do with what I know.

I’ve practiced the five types of ornamentation: vibrato, hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides and bends (especially vibrato). I’ve by no means mastered them, but am getting better at them and am trying to add them appropriately to my soloing. They aren’t yet unconscious expressive tools that I can draw on.

After a year of lessons and practice, I’ve begun entertaining fantasies of some day playing with a band. In the past that would have seemed an deluded pipe dream, but now it seems within reach if I keep working long enough. It’s a challenging and ambitious goal, but not impossible. As I listen to the music of the performers I admire, I think about what I’d like to play and the sound and tone that appeals to me most.

While it’s possible to teach oneself guitar (many great blues guitarists are self-taught), I have found it very helpful to have a teacher. A weekly lesson provides a regular structure and helps maintain my motivation. One of the issues I always faced in my writing was that no one else noticed or cared if I didn’t write. A teacher is someone who notices. Jim Goelitz has been a very helpful resource. He notices progress at times when I don’t and provides useful feedback and guidance on what or how I’m playing. I often have questions and appreciate working with someone who can answer them. Books and videos have their place, but nothing can replace a teacher. I have no doubt I’ve progressed more than I would have without one.

In addition to my weekly lesson and daily practice, I’ve been learning about music in other ways. Whereas in the past most of my reading was fiction, during 2009 I’ve mostly read non-fiction. My teacher recommended Kenny Werner’s Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within.  Werner, a jazz pianist, takes a spiritual approach to playing music that feels very much in line with my spiritual path. The book includes a CD of guided meditations.

Werner quotes several times from Stephen Nachmanovitch’s Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art (1990). It’s one of the best books I’ve read on creativity and I wish I’d discovered it years ago.

Even though I’d been listening to blues for years, I felt I needed to know more about the history of the music and those who created it. Gerhard Kubik’s Africa and the Blues (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1999, 260 p.) is a very academic, but still fascinating investigation of the “roots” of the blues.

I found Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta (New York: Viking Penguin, Inc., 1981 / Penguin Books, 1982, 320 pp.) a readable and interesting overview of Mississippi Delta blues.

My online research led me to a minor revelation. I had always thought the term “Mississippi Delta” referred to the delta of our largest river. It didn’t dawn on me that that delta is in Louisiana. In fact, the Mississippi Delta is an alluvial plain in the northwest of the state of Mississippi and lies between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. It extends from Memphis to Vicksburg.

Reading about the history of the blues reminded me how little I knew of the broader historical context in which the music developed. I decided I needed to know more about the history of slavery and began reading Peter Kolchin’s American Slavery 1619-1877 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993/2003, 328 p. I’ve only read the first fifty pages, but am enjoying it. It’s probably the first book on history I’ve read since high school.

While I’ve always loved going to hear live music (my wife and I have gone to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra several times a year for many years), I’ve probably heard more live music in the first six months of 2009 than in the past five years.

My interest in playing music has changed the way I listen to music both live and on CD. Now, in addition to enjoying the music, I’m also listening to what’s going on, and especially, how the guitarist might be doing what he’s doing. This makes seeing musicians play essential. I need to see what they’re doing with their fingers. Even when I’m watching, I’m not always sure how they’re making the music they are, but it helps to put the visual and auditory experiences together. Also, the more I learn how to play, the more I can hear what a player is doing.

Among the blues highlights of 2009 were Buddy Guy, Otis Taylor, Derek Trucks, and Eddie C. Campbell. I hadn’t heard of the 70-year-old Campbell before he came to town in May, but I loved his playing and his tone.

My concert going hasn’t been limited to blues. In addition to Chicago Symphony concerts, I’ve enjoyed seeing and hearing John McLaughlin, Adrian Belew, Grupo Cimarrón, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Vieux Farka Touré, and Oumou Sangaré among others.

I’ve been going through the blues CDs in the Oak Park Public Library to listen to musicians I had read about but hadn’t heard. And I’ve been listening to my own blues collection with new ears.

A few months ago, as I took walks alone or as I was falling asleep, blues lyrics began coming to me. (So far I have some 30 pages of beginnings of songs with three to twelve lines each.) I’ve welcomed these gifts, but don’t feel I’m ready yet to try to develop music for them. It’s something else to look forward to.

I’ve always felt a strong sense of curiosity about the world and it feels like there is so much still to discover about music and about the blues and how to play it. Starting to take music lessons has truly opened up a new world for me. My maternal grandmother lived to age 109 and my mother is still going strong in her nineties. I hope I have similar longevity, because there is still a lot I want to learn.

My essential goal is to make music that satisfies me and to keep growing and developing as a musician. I intend to continue playing guitar as long as I can still move my fingers.

It remains to be seen where this will lead, but that day when I signed up for guitar lessons was clearly a turning point in my life. Now I couldn’t imagine a life without the opportunity to make music. When I’ve gone out of town for a week, I’ve actually missed playing and if we travel by car, I take my guitar.

I encourage everyone I talk with to find a way to include making music in his or her life. Music—listening to it on recordings or live, reading about it, learning it, playing it—has become a new focus and priority in my daily life.