Yesterday, my student Wesley’s little “Folsom Prison Blues” video got almost 100,000 views on YouTube, and his parents and I were flooded with attention from the media. It’s been exciting, disorienting, and a little worrisome.
The internet, especially, is such a brutal force—and by the internet, I mean the way people act on the internet. The general public, from the anonymity of their offices and bedrooms, would just as soon rip someone to shreds as shower them with affection.
Getting all this press is like cuddling with a tiger. It’s licking my face! It loves me!
More footage from this Spring’s Coffee Shop Jam: Wesley, who just turned five, performed “Folsom Prison Blues” with a soulfulness that would have made Johnny Cash weep.
Many people, including my mom, are unsettled by a kid this young performing such grim material. But I don’t see it as a problem. For one thing, you can’t keep water from running downhill. Wesley LOVES Johnny Cash, and it would be pointless to try to change his tastes.
Also, I don’t think material like this hurts kids. On the contrary, engaging with adults in scary subjects like violence and death—which are on most kids’ minds anyway—is an opportunity for us to teach and support them.
Anyway, Wesley is a wonderful kid who has never been to Reno.
I hate flying with my guitar. Approaching the ticket-taker at the gate with my Martin in hand always feels like I’m leading it to its death, dreading this: “Oh, I’m sorry sir, it’s a very full flight, but we can hand-check that for you.”
Thankfully, so far I’ve always been able to shoehorn it into a coat closet or once, incredibly, into the captain’s cabin. This was post-9/11, folks. The stewardess who made that happen will be strumming a 1934 Martin OM in heaven some day.
Anyway, this guy wasn’t so lucky. Hilarious video. Hey, at least it wasn’t a Martin:
I hope you’re all having a great summer. The Heartwood Beat reached 4,000 subscribers since I last wrote. Welcome new readers!
Fingerpicking Hand Position
This past week I introduced yet another beginner to fingerstyle guitar–that is, picking the guitar with thumb and fingers instead of a flatpick. Every time I teach those first steps–how to orient your picking hand, how to play a simple pattern–I relive the excitement I felt when I first started down that musical path. Learning to play fingerstyle opens so many new doors, and it’s a thrill to watch a student cross the threshold.
Whenever I teach fingerstyle, I start with picking hand position. Good positioning decreases tension in the hand, and improves accuracy and tone. There are several ways of doing it, each with their benifits and drawbacks. I’m going to teach the Classical Position, which I use most of the time. It’s inspired by lessons I took with classical guitar wizard Michael Nicolella.
I hope this discussion will be helpful both for beginners and experienced fingerpickers who want to take a second look at their technique.
Here’s how it works:
1. Hold A Lemon: Imagine you’re holding a lemon with your picking hand. That’s the shape it should be in as you pick. The knuckles are curved slightly, and the hand is relaxed.
2. Tilt Wrist: If you hold your guitar like most rock and folk guitarists, you put your guitar on your right leg when sitting (if you’re right-handed), which orients your guitar neck more or less parallel to the ground. This poses a problem for your picking hand. To get good tone, your fingers need to pluck strings at a nearly perpendicular angle–up toward the sky–but if you keep your wrist straight, they’ll be picking more toward the bridge of the guitar. This will cause what I call “slicing”–picking the strings at an angle that causes wimpy tone and scratchy sounds on the wound strings.
Fix this problem by tilting your hand down. You can do this by getting into normal flatpicking position, and then totally relaxing your wrist (but not your arm), so that your hand droops but your palm’s still facing your guitar.
Note that the ideal ergonomic position for your hand is to have no bend in the wrist, so just tilt a little. If you want to avoid tilting altogether, hold your guitar in classical position when seated (a big change that I’m not willing to make), or stand up and point your guitar neck toward the ceiling, like this: (Suzanne Vega playing my favorite song of hers, “Gypsy”):
3. Make a Cross: To keep your thumb from bumping into your pointing finger (when you play two strings simultaneously, for example), straighten your thumb and point it toward your headstock. Your thumb and first finger should make a cross.
4. Keep Thumb Straight: The most ergonomic way to pick with your thumb is to move the joint where the thumb meets the hand. The other two knuckles should stay straight. It can be harder to use your nail in this position–grow it out longer (yes, fellas, I’m talking to you too) or use a thumbpick.
5. Plant Before You Play: This is a good tip for any fingerpicker. In most fingerstyle songs, your fingers are assigned to particular strings. Before you start playing, plant your fingers on the appropriate strings so that they can feel what they’re about to play. For example, if your pointing finger is picking the 3rd string, slot the fingertip between the 2nd and 3rd strings, and rest it against the 3rd string.
The coffee shop jam is the most awesome thing I do as a guitar teacher, and this past Jam, on May 30th, was even more awesome than usual.
This was partly due to the venue. The Columbia City Theater, a mid-sized music club in southern Seattle, has a glorious sound system and a three broadcast-quality video cameras. We’ve come quite a long way from our days of performing in the corner of Caffe Bella coffee shop, through one PA speaker, which barely competed with the noise of the espresso machine.
But there was also some inexplicable mojo in the air. My students performed with skill and energy that I hadn’t seen before. Usually, the pressure of performing for a big audience (we had 60-70 people at both shows) mutes inexperienced students’ performances, but sometimes the crowd’s energy can elevate the performer. I can’t tell you why, but most of my students practically levitated on the audience’s enthusiasm.
Over the next week, I’ll highlight some of my favorite performances. I’ll start with Emma’s song, “Snow Day.” She wrote it in January after a storm dumped a foot of snow in Seattle and canceled school. Emma blows me away with her stage presence and talent for writing super-catchy pop hooks.
Up all night editing videos of this past spring’s Coffee Shop Jam. As I’ve waited for the videos to upload, I’ve been looking at some old videos and reminiscing.
Here’s one of my favorites, from 2007. It’s gorgeous singing, and I like the unusual pairing of Mike, a snowboard builder and Starbucks employee, and Paul, a retired professor from a small coal mining town in Virginia.
Mike has a hiccup at the bridge but perseveres. This magical moment is what the Jam is all about: My students putting themselves on the line.
I can hear the legions of Standard Notation Defenders sharpening their swords even as I write this. I’m sorry—I think it’s crazy how militant some teachers are about starting their students with note reading, as if tablature were some gateway drug that starts guitarists on a path of laziness and stupidity. The opposite is true. Tablature is a fantastic tool for making guitar music accessible to beginners.
Granted, being able to read standard music notation opens many doors. It’s essential for jazz, orchestral, classical, or studio guitarists. In the same way, understanding basic algebra is essential for anyone who wants to manage their business’ finances. So do you teach algebra in kindergarten?
Your primary goal in teaching most beginners is to get them hooked on playing guitar. Every once in a while you’ll get a beginner who’s so psyched on guitar that they’re hungry for the challenge of learning note reading. But the vast majority are wary, and rightfully so. The guitar is a tough instrument at first. It’s much harder to get a guitar to sound good than, say, a piano. Why compound the challenges of buzzing strings, tuning difficulties, sore fingertips, and the dreaded F chord, with the epic task of learning note reading?
Update: The Handbook is now available for purchase here.