My Favorite Tool For Learning Difficult Songs

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”:

Such Great Heights Tab

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!

Have fun!

Free Guitar Lessons on Video

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.

You can find them here:

http://www.freeguitarvideos.com/guitar_lessons.html

How to Strum a Guitar – Strumming 101

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.

Exercise 1 (see video)

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!

Exercise 2 (see video)

Now let’s try all down and upstrokes:

D U D U D U D U
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • 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.

Exercise 3 (see video)

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:

D
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.

Exercise 4 (see video)

Now you’re strumming twice per measure. Keep that arm moving!

D       D
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

Exercise 5 (see video)

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….

Exercise 6 (see video)

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).

Exercise 7 (see video)

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?”

(See video of me doing my best Kurt Cobain).

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.

The Importance of Having Fun

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.

How To Practice Guitar

One of my hopes for this notebook is to collect lesson ideas. Here is my first entry along that line.

When you practice a difficult piece of music, do you repeat the whole thing again and again, stumbling the whole way through, until the music eventually surfaces from under the mess of wrong notes, halting rhythm, and curses? That’s how I used to practice.

I started playing guitar when I was in the seventh grade, learning mostly from my friends Justin, a Jimmy Buffet fanatic, and Matt, a hair band shredder. While it was a varied education, one thing I didn’t learn was how to practice. I would attempt long passages of music—like Jimi Hendrix’s Castles Made of Sand—at top speed, again and again. I thought that was how everyone did it. The approach went something like this: make 50 mistakes on my first try, 48 on my second, 47 on my third, and in another decade, I’ll be able to play the whole thing with no mistakes! Now how the heck do I sing along?

The process was so slow and frustrating, I’m surprised I stuck with it at all. And I never did get Castles down.

Over the years, I got rid of a lot of those bad habits, but things really came together for me during lessons with Jay Roberts a few years ago. Here are the principles I distilled from those lessons:

  • We Repeat Musical Phrases to Build Muscle Memory Muscle memory is a mental record of repeated movements that enable us to move with no thought. When Hendrix sings “Castles Made of Sand” while playing all those gorgeous embellishments on his guitar, he’s not thinking much about his playing—his fingers just remember what they’ve played before. Most of his thought is probably going to singing, making those embellishments sound expressive, and impressing that cute girl in the front row.
  • Muscles Remember Mistakes The process of building muscle memory is simple: The body moves, and the mind records the movement. It records with no judgment, like a security camera filming a bank lobby or a stenographer typing testimony in a courtroom. So when you perform mistakes, your muscle memory records those movements just as it records correct movements. When you mess up, you might think, “Shoot, that’s the fifth time I hit that wrong note!” but your muscle memory is diligently recording the incorrect movement all the same.
  • Avoid Mistakes by Simplifying and Slowing Down When I was practicing “Castles Made of Sand,” I’d try a big musical phrase, and play it as fast as I could. Of course, it sounded like the cat was playing the guitar, and I was digging myself into a hole because my muscle memory was recording all those mistakes. What I should have done was simplify the music by just choosing a couple notes to work on at a time. Once I had those down, I could either try a few different notes, or add a few notes to the notes I’d already learned. Also, I should have slowed down enough to make correct playing easy. This is actually really hard to do—I’m constantly telling my students to slow down. It’s not just impatience, it’s that people don’t realize how slow slow is. Slow is however slow you need to go to play without mistakes. For beginners learning a lick, this could mean one note every three or five seconds. As Jay put it, “The slower you go, the faster you’ll get there.”
  • Simplifying Also Means Isolating the Skill You’re Learning Say you’re learning to strum a new song that has a new strum pattern and new chords. Your job is to build muscle memory both with your left hand (fretting the new chords) and your right arm (strumming the new pattern). The problem is, until you build muscle memory, you have to exert all your focus on the skill you’re learning, making sure you don’t make mistakes. So how do you focus on fretting those new chord shapes while making sure you strum correctly? You can’t. So instead, you practice the two skills separately. Fret the new chords and just strum once to make sure they sound good. Repeat. Then practice the strum pattern while fretting just one chord. Repeat. Once you have both skills in your muscle memory, you can practice them together.
  • Repeat Until You’ve Really Got It Jay said that it takes between 20 and 80 correct repetitions of a musical phrase—with no mistakes—to build muscle memory. If you make a mistake, simplify or slow down, and then start counting from one again. Whether it takes 20 or 80 depends on your natural aptitude. Eddie Van Halen is probably one of those 20-reps guys. I am closer to being in the 80 club, and proud of it. Go 80’s!
  • Learning Strum Patterns Is A Little Different I’ve found that you don’t have to be quite so militant about avoiding mistakes when you’re learning new rhythms, like a new strum pattern. While simplifying and slowing down is helpful, learning rhythms also involves the mysterious process of “getting into the groove.” It demands that you loosen up, stop worrying about sounding bad, and try to feel the music. So don’t worry as much about mistakes. Once you get the strum pattern down, you’ll have plenty of time to obliterate the mistakes from your muscle memory as you strum that pattern over and over and over and over.

I hope this revolutionizes the way you practice. It’s made my own practice so much more enjoyable and productive. Let me know if you’ve found it helpful, have any other tips, or if you’re interested in guitar lessons in Seattle.

Heartwood Hoedown

Today I had the opportunity to teach some fiddle tunes to my student R. and his sister K. I’m not a great old-time-country player, and most of my students play rock music anyway, so I don’t teach fiddle tunes much. But I like them, and learned a few when I played in the short-lived World’s Worst, Friendliest Bluegrass Band (which is another story). So when R.’s mother told me last week that she’d like to bring R.’s sister, a violin player, to the next lesson, I was excited.

R. was less enthusiastic. He’s eleven, and has been my student for almost a year now. I’ve taken him through Nirvana’s “Come as You Are” (a great beginner’s song if you play it in Em instead of F#m), and Green Day’s “Good Riddance,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” and “Holiday.” So he’s not exactly a huge country music fan.

But R. is also diplomatic, so he went along with it. We first tried a slow waltz, which was very pretty, but it had a few new chords in it (dominants mostly) that Ryan hadn’t encountered playing his punk tunes. We finally settled on a 12-bar blues song called “Stinky’s Blues.” R. substituted the A, D, and E7 chords with power chords, and I showed him a little shuffle rhythm he could strum. K. sounded great on the fiddle, and by the time mom got back at the end of the hour, we had a little hoedown going on. Mom was delighted, and K. said she had a good time too. It was hard to tell if R. had much fun, though he did seem to take some pride in showing his older sister his guitar skills.

It’s always interesting to see how parents balance their children’s desires with their own dreams of who they’d like their children to be. Many parents dream of their families playing music together, but the kids are usually not as excited about it. How hard do you push?

On the one hand, I don’t think kids should be forced to do any kind of musical activity that they really don’t want to do. Music is a form of play–it’s highly structured and requires skill and discipline to do it well, but its goal is still simple pleasure, unless you’re one of those people who thinks that learning to play the piano under duress will boost SAT scores. I personally don’t think it’s worth it. Forcing people to play music is like forcing people to smile.

On the other hand, kids often need guidance and encouragement. R. would never have played fiddle tunes with his sister had his mom not encouraged him, and I think he got something out of it.

As R. was leaving, I joked that maybe, some day, he’d fall in love with a woman who’s crazy about fiddle tunes. He’s just eleven years old, but he seemed encouraged by the idea.

A Guitar Lesson From Ray

Today I was introducing a student to the minor pentatonic scale. I was about to show the student the whole scale when I recalled the scene from Ray where an old piano player teaches the young Ray Charles to improvise using three notes. I remembered thinking, as I watched the movie, “Three is the perfect number to start with. Easy to remember, but varied enough to allow plenty of expression.”

I taught my student the three notes (the same three little Ray used), launched into a blues boogie-woogie rhythm, and two minutes later my student was telling me how fun and easy blues improvising was.

A year ago I introduced the minor pentatonic scale using the whole finger pattern–twelve notes–and students often stumbled and got frustrated before they caught on. Up until today, I would teach an octave–six notes–with good results. But after today, I’m convinced three notes is the perfect place to start.

I wonder if Ray would have stuck with the piano if his first lesson had been on reading music notation….

Teacher's Notebook Launched!

So much can happen in an hour’s guitar lesson–it seems like every day I learn something new about teaching or playing. I want this blog to be a place to share these moments with my students and anyone else who comes along.

I hope you’ll join in on the conversation if you like.