You hear a lot of talk about computers isolating people from each other, and I think in many cases that’s true, especially if your job involves staring at a screen all day. But computers also have great power to bring people together over long distances. I’ve had visitors from India, Sweden, Singapore come to this blog and drop a note. And this morning I got this email from a reader in Chicago:
I found your chords on-line last night, and I want to thank you for putting that stuff up. When I found your list of songs, I called my wife in and said we have to move to Seattle, cuz I found a teacher whose list of songs scarily matches my own interests.
I took guitar lessons here in Chicago for a while (at the Old Town School, you may know it), but it’s my seven-year-old son taking them now that has re-energized my own playing and practicing (each day we compare the pads that we’re building up on our fingers). I can’t free up a regular time for lessons right now, but I’m finding the chords for songs I like on the Internet and getting in more practice almost every night than I ever did before.
I really appreciate all the work you’ve done to put everything on-line. You’ve given me months of new material, nicely laid out and a great match for my skills and interest. You may not make money from your web site, but you are making me a better guitar player. Thanks a lot.
Thanks to everyone for visiting my blog. I’m traveling this weekend but I’ll have some new material on improvising posted on Monday.
Hey Everyone, I’ve developed a new way of writing chord diagrams that I’ll be using in all future chord charts, and will eventually include them in currently posted chord charts too. Here’s some press about it: By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Published: April 28, 2005
Seattle (AP) — Guitar teacher Rob Hampton announced in a news conference today his company’s development of the Nanochart™, the world’s smallest complete chord diagram. Chord diagrams are used in guitar sheet music known as “chord charts” and “tablature” to illustrate chord fingerings. Out With the Old
Online chord diagrams typically come in two varieties. The most common is a single row of six characters identifying which fret is played on each string. “x” signifies muting or not playing a string, and “0″ signifies an open string. Here’s an “A” chord diagrammed in this manner:
While this format is compact, it doesn’t show which fingers should be used, confusing beginning guitarists. The second variety of chord diagram does show fingerings, but by the time the transcriber writes it out, everyone’s lost interest in the song. Here’s an “A” chord in this format (commence Jeopardy theme song):
In With the New
Nanocharts™, utilizing cutting-edge nanotechnology, are compact, quick to write, and show which fingers should be used. Here’s that same “A” chord in Nanochart™ format:
The top line (normally in bold) shows the fingering, and the bottom line shows the fretting.
“Nanocharts™ will change the course of history,” said Hampton at Wednesday’s news conference. Stock in Heartwood Guitar Instruction (HGI) fell slightly to $1.32 in light trading.
Students in my recent workshop at Pick-Hand Flight School, West Point Military Academy. I didn’t take any guff from those cocky flyboys.
What’s the hardest thing about playing guitar? Sore fingers? Sore neighbors?
I’d say the hardest part is hitting the correct string when playing single notes. Consider the rock star up there on stage. He’s singing into the mic, so he can’t peek at his guitar. Even if he could, his goldilocks are in his eyes, the lights are in his eyes, and the smoke machine has engulfed the whole stage in a whiteout. As the rock star finishes howling the chorus, his picking hand, a lost pilot in a storm cloud, cuts through the mist toward the B string for the first note of the guitar solo. It has no runway lights to guide it, no GPS, no control tower–only its arm which rests on the top of the guitar more than a foot away. How can the pick possibly connect with the B string, with room for error of just one centimeter, when its point of reference is so remote? Mayday! Mayday!
There’s no simple solution. Instead, there are all manners of shenanigans guitarists employ to keep their picking hand from getting lost. And as Chekov wrote, “If many remedies are prescribed for an illness, you may be certain that the illness has no cure.” So strap on your parachutes flyboys and flygirls!
This is when you plant the pinkie of your picking hand on the pick guard. Plenty of proficient fingerpickers pinkie post, but plectrum pickers should pass. Posting restricts the wrist, which will result in ragged (uneven) or retarded (slow) rhythm when wreaking rock riffs on your Rickenbacker.
You can see Kurt Cobain posting during the guitar solo in the MTV Unplugged video of “Come As You Are.” Don’t try this at home, kids. Kurt was a musical genius, but guitar technique was not shipped in his genius kit.
Planting Palm on Bridge–Better, but Still Bad!
This is when you dig your palm–right where the karate-chop part joins the wrist–into the top part of the bridge, where the 6th string connects. I used to do this all the time. It gave me security when I was on stage playing with The Lotus Eaters, a Grateful Dead cover band. I barely knew how to play a major scale–I think they let me play because I had long hair–so I needed all the security I could get.
The problem is, both your movement and tone is limited (picking that close to the bridge produces a bright, brassy sound).
Planting the Pick–Good!
This only applies at the start of a musical passage when you’re not playing something already, but it ensures you start on the right foot. Simply slip your pick in the space above the string you’re about to play. We have missile lock!
Jay Roberts, my most recent guitar teacher, has these bratwurst fingers that, as he picks, graze across the pickguard. This only works on the treble strings (unless you’re hand’s huge), but it’s a great way to stay oriented without restricting wrist movement. Plus, brushing is the only picking technique approved by the American Dental Association.
Other forms of brushing: Touching the bass strings with the palm while playing on the treble strings, and grazing the bridge with the palm (which brightens your tone but at least you can pick freely).
For Further Study
Here’s an excellent video by Eric Skye, a guitarist who I met on Acoustic Guitar Forum, demonstrating good picking technique. He shows you brushing techniques at 1:50.
A final note: Brushing is a great technique, and most good guitarists do some form of it, but it’s really hard to teach. My students wrinkle their nose and say it feels weird. I suspect that when you’re still trying to remember what the notes in a C major scale are, all this brushing voodoo is way too much to think about. But keep trying until it feels right.
After all, this is a WAR, people! One wrong note, and…
“Wish You Were Here” is such a great song for beginning and intermediate guitar players. Usually, gorgeous guitar songs are out of a beginner’s reach–a student will often ask me to teach them a song by a guitar god like Jimi Hendrix, John Mayer, Suzanne Vega, or Dave Matthews, and I have to either simplify the song until it’s barely recognizable, or tell the student to wait (which throws my little teacher’s heart into spasms).
But every once in a while, the guitar gods hand us a gift–a song that’s both beautiful and easy to play.
Here’s a list of Gifts From the Guitar Gods, starting with the easiest songs I know for total beginners, and ending with some divine intermediate songs for mortal fingers. Most titles are linked to chord charts I’ve written for my students. For the songs that involve more than simple strumming, I recommend searching for “tabs” or “tablature” on the internet, or using PowerTab Editor.
Gifts for Total Beginners
These are the most common songs and riffs I use in the first few lessons with my beginner students.
For What it’s Worth – Buffalo Springfield – No one knows the name of this song, but most adults recognize it by ear. It can be played with just two chords (E and A) if you simplify the chorus. It’s the easiest guitar song I know, and it sounds great when I play the electric guitar riff over it. Use the folk strum.
Eleanor Rigby – Beatles – My guitar arrangement of this song has just two chords during the verses (Em and C), and a very cool-sounding voice leading part in the chorus (Em7, Em6, C, Em). I teach it using the folk strum or 8th note downstrums. With really young kids–5 through 8 years old–I mute the three bass strings with a piece of felt. Then they can play the whole song using just one finger on the second string: 3rd fret for Em7, 2nd for Em6, 1st for C, and open for Em. When I play along to fill in the bass notes, it sounds great.
Good Riddance – Green Day – Most of my younger students are into the pop-punk bands like Blink 182, Bowling for Soup, Sum 41, All American Rejects, Good Charlotte, and of course, Green Day. Unfortunately, most require power chords, which are easy to play after a few months of practice, but what do you do in the mean time? Most easy songs sound like Mary Had a Little Lamb to these kids’ ears. Thank goodness for Good Riddance–a four-chord acoustic song that, when slowed down and strummed using the folk strum, is easy but still rocks
Smoke on the Water – Deep Purple – Young students are often best introduced to the guitar with single-note riffs or licks instead of chords. The Smoke on the Water riff, played in “E” on the 6th string, is super-easy and sounds cool. If students want to learn the whole song, I re-tune them to drop-D and have them play power chords on the 6th and 5th strings.
Come as You Are – Nirvana – If you strum this song in Em (using, you guessed it, the folk strum pattern), it’s just four easy chords. Another favorite first song for beginning rockers.
Wasting Time – Jack Johnson – A simple bass-strum song by a pro-surfer-turned-moviemaker-turned-musician. It’s nice and slow but my students always rush it. I’ve found that imagining you’re sitting under a palm tree on Maui helps to keep the tempo down.
Gifts for Intermediate Players
Wish You Were Here – Pink Floyd – The intro to this song is made easier by a technique used in many sounds-hard-but-isn’t songs. The third and fourth fingers are parked on the second and first strings, third fret, creating a G chord if you strum the 1st through 4th strings. The first and second fingers cruise around the bass strings, changing the bass notes from G to A to C to B, to create different variations on the G chord. I call these songs G-whiz songs, as in, “G-whiz, I can actually play this!”
All I Want is You – U2 – G-whiz, another one?! You could spend your whole career playing guitar in the key of G and never get bored….
Boulevard of Broken Dreams – Green Day – Once my Green-Day-obsessed students learn Good Riddance, they often graduate to this song. All the chords are easy except for the B chord, which I have them play as a power chord at the 7th fret, 6th and 5th strings. They usually
have to slow down for that one chord, but it’s a small price to pay for being able to rock like Billy Joe Armstrong!
Cannonball – Damien Rice – One of my recent discoveries, Cannonball is a great two-guitar song, with a G-whiz rhythm guitar part and an easy-but-hard-sounding lead riff.
Over the Hills and Far Away – Led Zeppelin – This is a challenging song for a beginning or intermediate guitarist–it’s fast and furious the whole way through–but Jimmy Page divides the work between the left and right hands through liberal use of hammer-ons and pull-offs. I learned this song in high school, and got by for the next ten years having terrible right hand technique–I just hammered-on and pulled-off every note that was too fast to pick. Just think of what you can do if you learn this song AND practice scales every once in a while!
Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin – I’ll never forget my buddy Paul McCann telling me “You gotta hear this song by this band Led Zeppelin! It’s like eight minutes long and it starts off all slow and then it starts rockin’ and I think it’s about suicide!” Since then, I’ve heard Stairway to Heaven approximately 7 gazillion times, and I still like playing it. The intro/verse progression is lovely, and it’s easy to fret and pick.
I hope you have fun with these Gifts From the Guitar Gods. What’s that? You were hoping for a ’58 Gibson Les Paul? Sheesh….
I’m sure there are people out there who enjoy reading about music theory. I’m sure there are also people out there who like to watch their fingernails grow. I’m going to take a wild guess and assume you fall into neither category.
I mostly taught myself to play guitar, and didn’t pick up much music theory until I started teaching about three years ago. It’s not that I resisted learning it–it’s just that it was never presented to me in the proper way, so of course it was confusing and boring. Articles in my guitar magazines were either too simple or way over my head, and my high school friends who I jammed with were as clueless as I was.
Then a few years ago, I discovered Bruce Emery’s books. These books have taught me so much about both teaching and playing. They present theory and technique in a clear, logical manner, but more importantly, they make me laugh. I have a hard time paying attention to anything if it isn’t making me laugh every two minutes. These books are so entertaining, they’ve achieved the highest honor a work of literature can receive in the Hampton household–a place on the back of the toilet.
Today I’m going to expose what I consider the most pervasive and insidious bit of misinformation plaguing modern society. No, it’s not that Columbus didn’t discover America. It doesn’t have anything to do with racism, the environment, or politics.
It’s about thumb placement. That’s right folks, Thumb, with a capitol T, that rhymes with C, that stands for CONSPIRACY!
Place the thumb in back of the neck roughly opposite the 2nd finger. Avoid gripping the neck like a baseball bat with the palm touching the back of the neck.
Now consider these photos of Eric Clapton and BB King:
Eric and BB are two of my most promising students, but it can be SO frustrating sometimes. Look at those thumbs! I keep referring them back to Hal Leonard Guitar Method Book 1, but they never seem to learn.
Seriously, it’s not just Hal Leonard that teaches students to keep the thumb behind the neck–all classical guitar instruction books, and many folk/rock books teach this. With a few exceptions, classical guitar is best played with the thumb behind the neck, so I have no problem with Andres Segovia and Co. But in the world of acoustic and electric guitars, these books are out of touch with reality. Don’t their authors see live music? Maybe they’re too busy answering emails from confused and frustrated readers.
The truth is, sometimes you put your thumb behind the neck, and sometimes you use the “baseball bat” grip. Here are some guidelines for thumb placement:
Thumb Behind Neck
Put your thumb on the back of the neck at the fattest part, roughly behind the fret where the second finger is.
Playing most classical music – Having the thumb behind the neck enables you to really arch your fingers, which is necessary when playing on classical guitars, which have higher action than acoustics and electrics. Also, usually you’re fingerpicking, so there’s no need to use the thumb for muting the 6th string (explained below).
Playing barre chords – These require a lot of pressure, so you want the thumb and fingers to act like a clamp.
Spreading your fingers – It’s impossible to spread them otherwise. Check out Eddie, his thumb squarely behind the neck, his fingers spanning five frets:
(Incidentally, Mr. Van Halen’s expression should not be confused with the “Blues Face” on Mr. King and Mr. Clapton above. Mr. Van Halen is exhibiting a similar expression known as the “I should never have switched hairdressers” face.)
Baseball Bat Grip
Cradle the neck in the skin between the thumb and forefinger or in the entire palm of your hand, depending on what you’re playing
When you need to mute the 6th string with your thumb – Many open chords (most variations of A, C, and D’s, for example) sound best if you don’t play the 6th string. Often, guitar instruction books recommend that you avoid the 6th string when you strum these chords, which is almost impossible and usually ends up sounding wimpy anyway. How are you going to do a Pete Townsend windmill if you’re trying to miss one of the strings?
When you’re bending strings – You get better leverage.
When you don’t need your thumb somewhere else – The baseball grip is simply more comfortable because you don’t have to bend your wrist as much.
When you’re using your guitar as a baseball bat—The baseball bat grip is firmer than the thumb-behind-neck grip, and as every guitar player knows, if you throw your guitar, intentionally or unintentionally, you’re “out.”
Arthur Fonzerelli Chairman Department of Thumb Placement Correction
It’s called Power Tab Editor, and it’s free. Designed primarily for transcribing music in tablature (with standard music notation above), Power Tab Editor is also very useful for figuring out songs with fast, complicated parts.
Here’s how it works: Download and install the Editor. Then go to Power Tab Archive and search for a song you want to learn. All songs are submitted by everyday guitar fanatics like you and me, but because it takes a certain amount of musical knowledge to write anything resembling music on the Editor, the quality of the submissions tends to be much higher than the kind of stuff you find from a “Blink 182 Guitar Tabs” Google search.
The Editor has controls similar to a music player. Hit the Play button and your computer will play the song using MIDI, illuminating each note or chord as it’s played. Some (OK, all) the charm of the song is lost in the translation to MIDI, but at least you can hear how it’s supposed to be played. For those of us who learn best by ear, Power Tab Editor is invaluable.
Here’s a trick: If the song’s too fast, click the first part of the tablature, go up to “Music Symbols,” and choose “Tempo Marker”. Play with the BPM (beats per minute) until you’ve slowed things down enough.
Also, for those of you who teach or compose guitar music, Power Tab produces a lovely manuscript that you can print or save as a .pdf file. For example, here’s my transcription the guitar solo in The Postal Service’s song “Such Great Heights”:
Whether you’re transcribing your latest masterpiece, or just trying to learn Ashlee Simpson’s “Pieces of Me,” you’ll be happy with Power Tab. Ohmygod, I think I’m going to, like, go work on that one now!
Yesterday I ran across the best collection of free, online guitar lesson videos I’ve seen on the web. The lessons are clear, include opportunities to play along with a jam track, and the video quality is excellent. They’re excerpts from Peter Vogl’s DVDs, which are for sale on his site, but there’s nothing left out of the lessons–you can get a lot out of them without paying a dime.
There’s tons to learn–Rock, Blues, Jazz, and Country styles, and there’s plenty for beginners and advanced guitarists.
The only drawback is Mr. Vogl’s incredibly geeky delivery (someone somewhere along the line must have told him to enunciate more, and he took things a bit too far). But the lessons are excellent.
This Tutorial Will Teach You To Strum in 20 Minutes
When I was a teenager teaching myself guitar in the 1980′s, the web didn’t exist. Googling wasn’t something you did on the computer—you did it with your eyes, at the girl who sat across from you in Chemistry. So when I had a question about guitar technique, I had to ask a friend who played guitar, research my mom’s ancient guitar instruction book, or sift through my guitar magazines to try to find the answer.
Now the internet is my primary guitar teacher. Whenever I have a question, the first place I go is a search engine. I find online videos, download free tabs, improvise over streaming jam tracks, and preview new music on iTunes.
The internet is especially great for an advanced guitarist. But one thing that’s often left out of free guitar lesson websites is proper instruction on strumming, even though this is the first hurdle most beginners face: Strumming a song start to finish.
One reason for this may be that it’s easier to learn strumming face-to-face with a teacher. Many students can simply watch and listen while a teacher strums, and pick up on the groove by imitating. But strumming can be described in writing. Over the eight years I’ve been teaching guitar, I’ve developed a system of writing strum patterns that anyone can learn to read easily, even if they’ve never had previous musical training.
If you enjoy this tutorial, I recommend signing up for my strum pattern videos. They’ll give you access to 155 high-quality videos (much better than the ones in this tutorial) that will show you how to strum most of the songs on my site.
Pickin’ the Pick
Unless you’re into old-time country or folk music, you’ll probably want to strum with a pick. Sometimes you’ll hear contemporary artists like John Mayer and Jack Johnson strum with their fingers if they want to alternate between strumming and fingerpicking, or if they want the muted, warm sound of fingers brushing strings. But 99% of acoustic guitar strummers like the crisp, bright sound of a pick.
Picks come in different shapes and thicknesses. Start with the normal shape:
Buy some thin- and medium- thickness picks. The thin ones are easier to use, but many guitarists don’t like their loud attack (the click of the pick hitting the strings). You can switch to mediums once you’ve learned the basics.
Heavy picks are for high-speed-guitar-solo types, so steer clear for now.
Holdin’ the Pick
Up until a few years ago, I held my pick between my thumb and the pads of my index and middle fingertips. It seemed the easiest way to keep the pick from falling out of my hand when I was strumming U2′s “Desire” and The Who’s “Pinball Wizard”. A few guitarists like Steve Howe hold their picks like that, but most hold it like this, with the pick between the thumb and the side of the index finger:
I think this grip gives you more control when you’re trying to pick individual strings. Since many songs require both picking and strumming, learn this first. If you want to switch to the Steve Howe grip later for strumming-only songs, go for it.
Guitar instruction books often show the pick being gripped with fingers curled into a tighter fist than in the photo above. But when I curl my fingers tighter, with the last joint of the index finger parallel with the thumb, it’s hard to let the pick flex in my fingers. It’s hard to strum lightly, and I drop my pick a lot. So one adjustment I’ve made is to extend my index finger a bit down the length of the pick like so:
See how my index finger is pointing less toward my palm and more toward you? This grip gives me more skin in contact with the pick for a more solid, but more gentle grip. I can let the pick flex in my fingers as I strum without dropping it. It also means that I sometimes hit the strings with the side of my index fingernail, and so the nail never grows out on that side. I still have enough nail for fingerpicking, but it’s ruined my career as a hand model on the Home Shopping Network. Darn!
Strummin’ With the Pick
The main thing you need to remember here is to keep your strumming arm going in a constant up-down motion, whether or not you’re hitting the strings. This acts as a metronome, helping you to stay in the groove of the song.
Let’s practice that principle by strumming all downstrokes, one strum per beat. But before we start, let’s take a look at how I write strum patterns:
D D D D
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
The lower line is the beats (the numbers) of the measure with the upbeats (the plus signs) in between. The upper line shows where you strum–D’s are downstrums, and U’s are upstrums. As you strum, you can count along by saying “one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and.” Move your arm down on the numbers and up on the “and’s”. In this first exercise, strum the strings on all downstrokes. When you get to the end of the measure (four beats), start over immediately. Go for it!
Strum from the elbow. Your wrist should be relaxed, but not moving very much. Most of the strumming motion comes from flexing your elbow.
Keep the pick perpendicular to the strings. Often beginners will tilt the pick up on downstrokes and down on upstrokes so that the pick doesn’t get “caught” on the strings. The problem is, all that tilting is impossible once you start strumming more quickly, and can produce an uneven sound. Learning how to strum evenly takes time, but you can help things by gripping the pick lightly.
Strum with a wide arc. Beginners tend to just barely pass over the strings as they strum. This can cause the strumming to sound choppy, where you can hear individual strings being struck. Instead, you want to hear all the strings being struck almost simultaneously, in a burst of sound. Strumming in a wide arc will increase the speed that your pick passes over the strings. It’s also harder to aim properly when you do this, but you’ll get it!
If you’re digging this tutorial, you’ll love my strum pattern videos. Just $7/month will give you access to 155 high-quality videos (much better than the ones in this tutorial) that will show you how to strum most of the songs on my site.
Next I want you to practice using your arm as a metronome, keeping it moving up and down even when you’re not strumming. Here’s the pattern:
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
If this were really a guitar part in a song played by an experience guitarist, he or she probably wouldn’t be moving their arm that much–it does look a bit silly–but they would almost certainly be doing something with their body to keep in rhythm: Tapping their foot, bobbing their head, doing the Elvis knee-jerk, whatever.
OK, here’s the first part of the folk strum pattern. Can’t you feel the excitement mounting?
D D U
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
In this video I introduce a new way of using your voice to help you strum. So far we’ve been counting “one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and.” But as strum patterns get more complex, I find it’s easier to say the “down’s” and “up’s” as you’re strumming them. This one isn’t that hard, but the next one is….
This pattern is the most syncopated one so far. Syncopated music stresses upbeats, and this pattern has two upstrums in a row. Syncopated music is hard to play, but without it, funk granddaddy George Clinton would have been a tuba player in a polka band.
D D U U
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
You’ll notice that I say “rest” on the 4th beat. I find this helps to remind you that you need to move your arm down on the 4th beat (even though you’re not strumming).
Here it is, the holy grail of beginning strumming, the Folk Strum Pattern:
D D U U D U
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
The other patterns in these exercises were merely warm-ups. The Folk Strum Pattern, on the other hand, is used in a ton of songs, so keep working on it until you can play it in your sleep. Try it with Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” or if you want something less folksy, how about Nirvana’s “Come as You Are?”
I hope you enjoyed this tutorial. Did I mention that my strum pattern videos are a great next step in your strumming education? They’ll show you how to strum most of the songs on my site, using high-quality videos like the Folk Strum video you watched.
Let me know how you liked the lesson and please tell me if anything wasn’t clear.
What’s the use of practicing guitar if you’re headed toward burnout? Whenever you’re working on something–a song, as skill, and exercise–you should be listening to your gut, asking yourself if what you’re doing is inspiring you.
I mention this because in yesterday’s post How To Practice, I listed some principles for practicing that some of you might consider a bit anal (as the psychotherapists put it). We guitarists are generally more laid-back than your average, say, oboe player. We like to break the rules, make weird noises, and occasionally smash our instruments for thousands of screaming fans. (Maybe oboe players would smash their instruments too if it didn’t look so silly, I don’t know.)
So whenever I teach a finger exercise or use the metronome with my students, I tell them that they shouldn’t use it if it’s making them reach for the lighter fluid (you young folks may not be aware of the famous story of Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire). The most important thing you can do to get better at the guitar is to practice a lot, so whatever you’re doing needs to keep you motivated.
For example, I learned the principles in How to Practice when my guitar teacher Jay taught me a highly structured practice routine that was too rigid for my tastes. It involved using an egg timer and practicing in 5-minute intervals, counting correct repetitions, and starting over when a mistake is made. It was cool to try out, but eventually the egg timer got on my nerves. That’s when I knew that I needed to adapt the technique to match my personality. Now I still try to avoid mistakes, but there’s no egg timer, and no counting. I repeat a passage until I think I’ve got it. And I’m loving it the whole time.