GuitArchitecture, Sonic Visualization And A Pentatonic Approach For The Holidays

Happy Holidays!

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I know I’ve been posting a lot of gear related items lately – and  based on the statistics for site visits – this seems to be what people are primarily interested in – so this has driven the posting content recently.

While I’m happy to blog about gear (not incidentally, my 8 string Bare Knuckle Cold Sweat pickup came in last night and I squealed like Bobby Hill); I don’t want to get too far away from playing.  With that in mind I’m putting a concentrated effort to get more lesson/performance posts up to rebalance the site a bit.

I’ll have a new  chord-scale lesson up next week but in the meantime wanted to explain my performance/pedagogical approach to navigating the fingerboard with a fleet fingered pentatonic lick (yes, it’s reposted – but just like Thanksgiving leftovers – aren’t they still good on day two?).

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GuitArchitecture?  Sonic Visualization?

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I wanted to take a moment and talk a little about GuitArchitecture, sonic visualization and re-examine a chestnut from the lesson page as a little – three for the price of one post.

In broad strokes, the GuitArchitecture concept is that the nature of the guitar’s fretboard and tuning lends itself to visualizing fingering patterns.

While patterns performed mindlessly can be a bad thing, they allow people to realize ideas more readily.

Through these patterns, musical structures can be realized and worked into larger sonic arrangements.  More importantly, patterns can be associated with sounds and visualizing how to realize a sound by seeing its shape on the fretboard makes performing it easier.  Hence the term Sonic Visualization.

In my forthcoming books – I have a lot of information on this topic as it applies to scales.  When approaching scales – I see them as a series of modular two-string patterns that connect the entire fingerboard.

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The GuitArchitecture Approach

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Here’s an applied example of sonic visualization:

Let’s say I’m playing a solo over an E minor chord.  As mentioned in a previous post – when soloing over a minor chord you can substitute a minor chord a 5th away (in this case B minor).

So if I’m thinking of using E pentatonic minor over the chord (E, G, A, B, D) I can also use B pentatonic minor (B, D, E, F#, A).

If you look carefully – you’ll see the only difference between the two is the F# and the G.   Both notes sound good against E minor, so if we combine them we get a six- note scale (E, F#, G, A, B, D).  Here is a sample fingering of the combined scales in the 12th position.

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If that scale were fingered as a 2-string scale instead of a six- string box pattern – the same fingering pattern can be moved in octaves – thus eliminating the need for multiple fingerings. (This is the same approach I’m using on 8 string guitar btw).

Here is an mp3 (note mp3s are a little glitchy in Safari – if it doesn’t play you may just have to reload the page) and notation/tab for the descending scale:

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Sextuplet descending

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* Fingering Note: I finger both patterns with the 1, 2 and 4 fret hand fingers on both string sets.

* Descending Picking Note: I play this with a modified sweep picking pattern

E string: up-down-up

B string: up-down-up

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The picking pattern is the same for each string – but when I switch strings – it’s two up picks in a row.

Here it is  ascending:

Sextuplet Ascending

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* Ascending Picking Note: I also play this with a modified sweep picking pattern

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E string: down-up-down

A string: down-up-down

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The picking pattern is the same for each string – but when I switch strings – its two down picks in a row.

If you’re used to alternate picking  – you can use that approach as well but I try to apply the same picking pattern to all three-note per string patterns.

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Practicing the pattern

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In addition to focusing on the timing of the notes – it’s very important to practice slowly and only increase speed when both the timing (are all the notes being played with rhythmic equivalence?), tone (i.e. can you hear all of the notes clearly?) and hand tension (is your hand should be as relaxed as possible?) are all working together.

I’ve written a whole series of posts on practicing  (Post 1post 2post 3post 4post 5post 6 and post 7) that I’d recommend checking out if you haven’t already done so – but the simple principle here is to pay attention to what I call the 3 T’s in Performance: Timing, Tone Production and Tension.

This particular approach is challenging – particularly if you’re not used to the stretch.  Just remember to practice in small focused increments and try to increase steadily over time.

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The Tones:

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For those of you who are interested, tone on this recording was the same AU Lab/Apogee/FNH combination that I detailed here:

Here’s a screen shot of the Pod Farm setting (The tone can be downloaded from line 6 here):

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That’s all for now

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I hope this helps!  You’re free to download and distribute any of the lessons here but I maintain the copyright on the material.

I’m always looking for feedback on what people find useful and what they don’t so if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to e-mail me at guitar.blueprint@gmail.com

Warming Up: Finger Exercises, The 3 T’s And The Necessity Of Mistakes

Pedagogical Errors Were Made

One of the first lessons that guitar students are taught is the 1 note per fret 1-2-3-4 chromatic alternate picking exercise.  While this is typically presented  as an initial exercise to gain coordination – it has a very limited long run value.  As a static exercise, it  should be discarded from your regimen immediately because

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you play what you practice

If you want to play semi-chromatic ideas at high speeds moving in 4ths – this is a great exercise to use.  But it’s a boring sound, a boring exercise and doesn’t translate well into everyday performance.

“But Scott”, you might posit, “it’s just  a warm up exercise.  It isn’t something to play at a gig.”  Then it’s a further waste of time as

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everything you play should be something that translates to live performance

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The Physicality Of Practicing or How To Lose A Gig

Here is a gig nightmare story that illustrates the point of proper technique versus strength.  Since the embarrassment here is all mine, all of the names will be on the record for my moment of shame.  Years ago when I was working at Sandy’s Music, one of my co-workers “Skinny Mike” Feudale wanted to see if I could play a gig with his rockabilly/psychobilly band – The Speed Devils. Mike is a great songwriter and the songs on the Speed Devil’s cd were really strong and lot of fun to play.  The Speed Devils had a gig come up in NY and needed a lead guitarist to sub in.  If it worked out – it could be a regular gig – but there were some rules.

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1.  I had to look the part – fortunately the drummer Judd had a vintage bowling shirt I could squeeze into

2.  I had to play a vintage amplifier.  Fortunately I had just gotten my vintage Gibson amp back from Tom at AzTech electronics (truly an amazing amp guy) – which sounded and looked great.

3.  I had to play the Speed Devils guitar.  This was a hollow body that Mike had fixed up and completely vibed out (full flames and dice for volume knobs) with heavy gauge strings and high action to push the volume a little more.

We rehearsed the set once or twice and then went to the gig a couple of days later.

On the way from Boston to NY, I didn’t have time to warm up so I was doing some finger exercises to limber up my hands.  I was experimenting with a lot of grip master type things to strengthen my hands and try to fix my pinky (which was really quiet with hammer ons).  We got to the club and  I found out that there was no mike for my amp.  The only thing going through the PA was the vocals.

This is the point of the story that I should mention that while everything was fine when we had rehearsed at low volumes; my 15 watt amplifier could not compete with the rest of the band in a club setting.  As I was inaudible I started strumming louder, and with the live adrenaline kicking it, I started fretting harder as well.   Between the heavier string gauge, the higher action, the underpowered amp and the over-tensed playing- I blew my hands out by the second tune.

My hands were so shot that chording was difficult and soloing was all but impossible.  I limped through the rest of the performance – but nothing came out the way it was supposed to.  Needless to say, I didn’t get the gig – a sound decision by the band – but I was really angry with myself because I had unknowingly sabotaged myself before I even got there and had I taken a different approach – I would have been able to play the show much better and not let the band (and myself) down.

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The Physicality Of Practicing (slight return)

Playing an instrument is a physical endeavour.  You can push your muscles too hard and hurt yourself badly playing the same things over and over. (Trust me – performance related injuries are not fun).

Having said that, this isn’t weightlifting.  You don’t need muscular hands capable of cracking walnuts to play guitar well – you need hands that can move  fingers quickly and independently –  a fast twitch muscle versus a slow twitch muscle. This leads to a little secret that students generally don’t get exposed to in rock guitar lessons

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hammer on volume comes from the speed the fingers strike the string not the force

In terms of volume, the most problematic finger is typically the pinky.  One habit that I had to fix (and that I continue to see in a number of players) was the improper attack of the fret hand pinky on the strings. (In case you’re wondering about proper form, I’ve reposted some of the information from the Glass Noodles arpeggio post below).

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Here’s a good way to visualize the fret hand finger motion you’re looking for:

Put the palms of your hands on a table.  Now without lifting the palms up, tap your fingertips one at a time on the table starting from the pinky and ending on the index.  You’ll notice that the fingers stay curved and that the large knuckle of each finger is responsible for the tapping.  This motion is what you’re looking for in this process.  Notice that you don’t need to hit the fingertips very hard against the table to get a crisp attack.

The concept of building up your hands like biceps – is just ridiculous.  The goal of guitar performance is to keep your hands relaxed so you don’t blow them out in a gig or on a session.

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How I warm up now

When I warm up now – I play scales and arpeggios, switching between chord voicings of tunes I’m working on and improvising around various patterns at low tempos and paying strict attention to

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The 3 T’s in Performance: Timing, Tone Production and Tension

(remember these – this awareness could save you untold time and pain later!)

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In general –  you just want to make sure that all of your fingers have had a little blood flowing in them before you begin to play for any length of time.  I do this with a timer for 5 minutes (more or less depending on how my hands feel).

External warm up devices are kind of goofy to me.  Have you ever seen a runner go into a gym and max themselves out on a legpress before they went for a long run?  Do you really think that putting mechanized unfocused tension on a finger is going to make it play a musical passage more efficiently?

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The necessity of making mistakes

Along with the forthcoming GuitArchitecture books, I have also put substantial time into  a general book of guitar technique.  In addition to discussing specifics of practice and performance methodology – I also took the 1-2-3-4 exercise and broke it down into every possible positional variation as a way to develop technique.  The book is currently 256 pages.  The majority of which are the 864 individual graphics that had to be created and placed in the text.

Midway through this process I started to question the mistake of basing any technical study on such an exercise – or the concept of musical exercises in general.  (Again the point isn’t to have svelte waistline or huge muscles – the point is to be able to play melodic and harmonic ideas more readily.)

I came to the conclusion that if the 1-2-3-4 example could be approached as a way to develop a systematic approach to generating both melodic ideas and melodic variation it could also benefit readers as a technical study as well.

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Mistakes are teachable moments

It’s easy to see a mistake as something to learn from in a practice room session but harder to see it at a gig. If I walked away from the Speed Devils show and just said, “That gig sucked – so I must suck as a guitarist” I would have missed a great opportunity to see there was something very wrong in what I was doing. The gig taught me in addition to making sure that I had proper preparation and the right tools for the job that tension does not equal volume – and that lesson has been more beneficial to me than any lesson I could pay for.

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I hope this is helpful to you!

Thanks for reading.

-SC

Recycling Shapes or Modular Arpeggios for Fun and Profit

When improvising, I need to be able to access sounds immediately.  One tool that I use for this is Sonic Visualization (which is really a cornerstone of the GuitArchitetcure concept).  In Sonic Visualization – I associate shapes with sounds so that I can make changes, modify  or develop ideas in real-time.  Here’s one example of this in action and has some cool ramifications for application.

For the audio examples – I’ll be using a Line 6 variax AC 700 strung with D ‘addario .012 phosphor bronze strings – to show that this can be performed on an acoustic guitar.  I used the line 6 as I could record it direct into the laptop in AU lab and not have to use a microphone.

First:  Here’s an example of this approach played at tempo.

Now let’s start slowly and see how to get to that point.

Let’s say we were going to solo over an A5 chord.

Since there are only 2 unique notes (A and E), you could play almost any type of scale or arpeggio over it – but for a moment – let’s look at a minor tonality.

If I was playing straight up metal, I might just play an A minor arpeggio over it.  There’s nothing wrong with this sound – but I want to spice it up a little.

One thing I’ll do as a starting point is to extend the arpeggio. Instead of just playing an a minor triad (A, C and E) – I’m going to add a G and a B to the arpeggio creating an A minor 9 sound.  Here’s the form I’ll be using:


Some quick notes:

Fingering – basically I view this as a positional form so I’m using the 1st finger for notes on the 5th fret, 2nd finger for the E on the 7th fret, 3rd finger for the C on the 8th fret and the 4th finger on the B on the 9th fret.

Hand tension – As your playing through this shape – you want to keep your fretting hand as relaxed as possible.  The more tense your hand is – the more difficult this will be to play.

Picking – you could play this with alternate picking or all hammers – but I’m going to recommend a specific picking pattern for this arpeggio:

Notice that it starts on an upstroke and then uses all down strokes.  This picking pattern will become very useful as this process continues – but if you don’t have a lot of experience sweep (or rake) picking, you’ll need to keep your picking hand relaxed and work on getting the attacks all happening in time.

Timing – you’ll notice that this is a group of 5 (i.e a “Quintuplet” or “Pentuplet”) which means that you are playing 5 notes to the beat.  The  key here is to make sure that you are playing the notes in an even division – (i.e. the same length of time for each note and each space between the notes).

Here’s an audio example of just the arpeggio – first played slowly and then at tempo.

Note: in some browsers (Safari in particular)  the audio doesn’t always load properly in the new window.  If you just refresh the window it usually comes up the second time.

Obviously a metronome will help with consistency – but it you’re having trouble with hearing the division of 5 try the following.

Set up a metronome.

Set the click at a slow enough level that you can play 1 note per click.

Accent the first note and tap your foot to the first note only

Play each note of the arpeggio on a metronome click.

On the repeats – accent the first note and tap your foot to the first note only.  If you can – try to figure out the tempo of the first tones only (a tap tempo feature will help a lot here) and now try playing the arpeggio with only the first accent.  This is annoying to do for long periods of time – but can help a lot for short practicing cycles.

You may want to just start with this one arpeggio and work on synchronizing both hands – that alone could take some time if you’re unfamiliar with this technique.

From a performance perspective – you’re looking for uniformity of attack with regards to both timing and volume.

 

Recycling shapes

Here’s an interesting observation – If we play the same minor 9 shape we just used but this time move it to the 5th of the chord (In this case the pitch E or an E minor 9 arpeggio ), we get the notes E, G, B (which were also in the last arpeggio)but we get 2 added pitches D and F# which here act as the 11 and 13. This creates an over all A minor 13  or A Dorian sound.

Short cut #1 – when playing over a minor or minor 7th chord – you can play minor arpeggios from both the root and the 5th of the chord over it.

 

Short cut #2 – A minor 9 + E minor 9 = A minor 13 or an A Dorian sound.

Let’s look at this in notation and tab:

Notice that by using the same picking pattern –  the upstroke of the B in the first arpeggio leads right into an upstroke on the E of the E minor 9 arpeggio.  The fingering pattern is the same as before.  Once you get the A minor 9 form down – you may need to practice the transition between the A minor 9 and the E minor 9 forms.

Here is an mp3 of the transition played at two tempos.

Finally, we can repeat the same thing on the last A of the A5 chord (although the fingering pattern will have to be adjusted by a fret for the G-B string tuning).

Here’s the top A minor 9  arpeggio played by itself – first slowly  and then faster.

As before, the same picking pattern is utilized to add continuity between the forms.  You could end on the B or pick another pitch the end the form on depending on what chord you’re playing it over.  Here I’ve chosen E.

Here’s the full arpeggio played at tempo.

You say Tomato I say Major

So now that we’ve looked at a minor example let’s use a major example.

If I sharp the C and G notes of the A minor 9 arpeggio –I have an A Major 9 arpeggio – which also works over A5.

Here’s the A major 9  arpeggio played slowly  and then faster.

Here’s another interesting observation – If we play the same major 9 shape we just used but this time move it to the 5th of the chord (In this case the pitch E or an E major 9 arpeggio ), we get the notes E, G#, B (which were also in the last arpeggio) but we get 2 added pitches D# and F# which here act as the #11 and 13.  This creates an over all A major 13 augmented 11 or an A Lydian sound.

Short cut #1 – when playing over a major or major 7th chord – you can play major arpeggios from both the root and the 5th of the chord over it.

 

Short cut #2 – A major 9 + E major 9 = A major 13 (#11) or A Lydian tonality.


Since I’ve broken this process down a great deal with the A minor 9 process – I’ll just highlight the lick idea here.  You could end on the B or pick another pitch to end on depending on what chord you’re playing it over.

Here’s the full arpeggio played at tempo.

Here’s the A major 9  arpeggio played slowly  and then faster.

Taking it out

As a final idea – let’s apply this concept to extending the overall tonality.

Here’s a transcription of an improvisation working off of this idea – but using a B minor 9 for the third chord of the sequence.

First let’s look at the A5 chord again:

Now – let’s realize that instead of building these structures off of the Root – 5th – root of the chord – that we could use other tones – for example here I’m going to use the Root, the 5th and the 9th:

Here’s a transcription of an improvisation working off of this idea – but using a B minor 9 for the third chord of the sequence.

Here’s the full arpeggio played at tempo.

Here’s the  arpeggio played slowly  and then faster.

C# is obviously not part of an A minor tonality – but by sneaking it into the arpeggio sequence it gently nudges the overall tonality to me in a pleasing way.

The point is to not get too hung up on rules or shortcuts – but instead to have a series of modular sounds and approaches that you can use as the need comes up.

I’ll be posting more about these types of approaches in the weeks and (more likely) months ahead.  Just remember in general to keep your hands loose, your rhythm tight and your attention focused – but if this is your first time to the site I’ve posted a number of things on practicing in general which may be helpful to you.

I’m always looking for feed back on these posts!  If possible – please take a minute to comment or drop me a pm @ guitar.blueprint@gmail.com to let me know if these are useful to you.

Thanks for dropping by!


Testing Your Vocabulary Or Practicing Part VI

In the last post on practicing, I focused a great deal on the importance of listening in general and I’d like to focus and frame that importance a little more this time.

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Before I move on, you may want to read my previous posts on practicing.  If you have missed those posts, you can find them here: part 1part 2part 3 , part 4 and part 5.

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It’s important to realize that scales, arpeggios or any other kind of melodic or harmonic device is only a tool in the service of making music – and is not music in and of itself.

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One way to get to making music with these devices is to learn other people’s music and phrasing, either by transcribing or learning by ear.

As a guitar teacher, I occasionally to run into students who are resistant to this idea as they only want to learn “their music”.

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Learning other people’s music is learning your music because it’s part of a process in developing your voice.

The point of music is to communicate and to communicate with people you must have something to say.  This is done not only with vocabulary, but with a familiarity of language that comes from constant exposure and interaction.

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When you learn other people’s music, or licks or chord progressions you learn vocabulary.  You learn phrases that work their way into your being and begin to form your aesthetic.  When you talk about “your writing style” for something you’re writing – do you make up all of the words you are going to use?  In reality, you use words that you’ve used before.  You use phrases that you’ve seen other people use that have now become part of “your writing style”.

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If you’ve ever been around a child that’s learning to verbalize their thoughts – you’ve heard a lot of sounds coming out that are not recognizable as words (much less sentences).  It can be a real struggle to determine what it is that the child is attempting to do (or perhaps wants).  If you were to isolate that child at a certain point of development and refuse to interact verbally, the child would eventually develop his or her own language – but it would be completely inaccessible to you.  You would be unable to communicate verbally with the child and have to do things visually to convey ideas.

I’ve heard some singer/songwriter music that was done with this mindset.  The lyrics represent things that are so personal that it is impossible to gain any meaning from them without an intimate knowledge of the person.  Harmonically (because the performers use sounds that “are theirs” and nothing more),  the approach is severely limited and the chord progressions tend to all sound the same.  If you’ve ever had this experience you may find that you tend to tune out after a song or two as I do.

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Learning vocabulary

When learning vocabulary, there are several steps (this is a profoundly oversimplified list):

  1. Exposure (or more likely multiple exposures) to a word (usually in a context)
  2. Use of the word
  3. Integration of the word into conversation/writing etc.

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This means that there is a lot of word use to get to the point of integration.  In musical terms, you may have to shed a lick or phrase a lot not only from a technical standpoint (use of the phrase), but also to have it be “available” when you’re improvising (integration).  And this is a real test of your vocabulary.

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You might think you have something down – but no matter how much you shed something,

if you can’t access it when you’re improvising – it’s not fully integrated into your playing.

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It’s important to realize that integrating vocabulary is a conscious decision.  It isn’t passive at all.  Just because I hear a sound – doesn’t mean I know what it is or how to react to it. This is the real difference between hearing and listening.

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Hearing is biological, listening is mental.

You can get a lot from working with transcription software (like transcribe) and using it as a phrase trainer (i.e. taking an advanced technical or shred lick and slowing it down to such a slow speed that it becomes playable).

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Don’t be afraid of working on complex solos or phrases!

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All you have to do is:

slow it down and

break it into small components that you can play and

try to increase the speed a little every day.

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In this way you’re actually getting more complex patterns under your fingers and gaining some refined ideas to draw upon.  By working in this manner, you can develop phrases so that you have something that you can use at a variety of tempos. Having ideas that work in a number of contexts  makes it easier to integrate into your playing..

If this is an area of interest, you may also want to read this post on music as language.  You can also find some posts that may help with practice/motivation stating with one on focus here, a thought on music theory in performance here, or the importance of deadlines here.

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I hope this helps!  Thanks for dropping by!

-SC

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If you like this post you may also like:

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PRACTICE MAKES BETTER AKA PRACTICING PART I

PROPER POSTURE IS REQUIRED FOR PROPER PERFORMANCE – PRACTICING PART II

TENSION AND THE SODA CAN OR PRACTICING PART III

DEFINITIONS AND DOCUMENTS OR PRACTICING PART IV

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PRACTICE WHAT YOU PLAY OR PRACTICING PART V

TESTING YOUR VOCABULARY OR PRACTICING PART VI

POSSESSION IS 9/10S OF THE LAW BUT PERCEPTION IS EVERYTHING OR PRACTICING PART VII

Some Useful Online Practice Tools

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FINDING THE DEEPER LESSON

MELVILLE, MADNESS AND PRACTICING – OR FINDING THE DEEPER LESSON PART 2

INSPIRATION VS. INTIMIDATION

What’s wrong with playing “Flight of the Bumblebee” for a world speed record?

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Definitions and Documents Or Practicing Part IV

I was originally planning on updating this post with pictures of hand postures and address left and right hand muting techniques – but given that I have sunburned skin peeling off of 20% of my body – I’m going to hold off on photos for now.

Instead, I’d like to take a moment and actually address defining practicing as a means of understanding what is being addressed by practicing and then examine how documenting the process can assist with it.

For those of you who are just coming to this post you may want to also read the previous posts on practicing.  Here’s a link to part 1, part 2 and part 3.

Definition

By defining practicing it’s easier to understand what practicing is supposed to do.  Here is a partial definition from Meriam Webster.

“Main Entry: 1prac·tice

Variant(s): also prac·tise \ˈprak-təs\

Function: verb

Inflected Form(s): prac·ticed also prac·tisedprac·tic·ing also prac·tis·ing

Etymology: Middle English practisen, from Middle French practiser, from Medieval Latin practizare,alteration of practicare, from practica practice, noun, from Late Latin practice, from Greek praktikē, from feminine of praktikos

Date: 14th century

transitive verb1 a : carry outapply <practice what you preach> b : to do or perform often, customarily, or habitually<practice politeness> c : to be professionally engaged in <practice medicine >
2 a : to perform or work at repeatedly so as to become proficient <practice the act> b : to train by repeated exercises <practice pupils in penmanship>”

The definitions presented in the 2nd part of this definition help – but don’t really explain how to train or what practicing is supposed to achieve.  So I’m going to supply one of my own.

Practice:  The proper focused repetition of an idea through an incrementally difficult environment for the purpose of achieving a musical goal.

By tearing apart this definition some elements of practicing can be exposed that you might not have thought about before.

proper:  meaning the right way; consistently

focused:  Practice requires concentration because it requires attention to detail.

repetition:  repetition leads to familiarity (and familiarity breeds contempt so be careful here!)

incrementally difficult environment:  To practice something means that you are pushing your abilities to do something.  In music, one implication of this is to practice with a time keeping device (metronome, drum machine, drummer, recording, etc.) – but this could be any kind of parameter that actually pushes you.

for the purpose of achieving a musical goal:  Practice is goal oriented.  If you are not trying to achieve anything then you are not practicing.

With a clearer understanding of what is meant by practicing – we can go on to how to maximize the use of your practicing time.

1.  Set clear, well-defined goals (short AND long-term) and work towards those goals.

2.  Since practice requires concentration, put yourself in an environment that facilitates concentration such as a relatively quiet, well lit and well ventilated room as free of distraction as possible.

3.  While concentration is required for repetition, excessive repetition undermines concentration.  Many people use set periods of time to practice something.  This can be a good policy if it is done in moderation.  Bill Leavitt (the founder of the guitar department at Berklee)  suggested that students should practice reading for 15 minutes of every hour of practice – because 4 sessions of 15 concentrated minutes of practice get you a lot further than one hour of unfocused practice.  A timer (like an oven timer) can be a great assistance here.

For some people, concentration will be a learned activity.  If you are not used to focusing on something with intensity, then even trying to work 10 minutes on something may be problematic.

If you are having problems with this area – try starting with smaller intervals of time like 5 minutes with one short phrase and then move on to the next item on your agenda. Practicing in this manner will help you develop your capacity for focus as well.

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There are several different thoughts about achieving goals, for me personally – it’s important to get many ideas into muscle memory slowly and develop them all at the same time rather than developing only one idea fully after another. You, however,  should plan on experimenting and find what approaches work for you

By setting a timer and not worrying about how long you are practicing, (in whatever methodology you use) you can spend more energy on the actual performance.

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Documentation

One approach to consider is seen in how athletes train.  After all, playing guitar is a physical process that requires performance of well-trained activity.  This is very similar to a swimmer who has to be able to perform at a high level at a signal (like a whistle blowing).  One thing athletes do is WRITE IT DOWN.  Runners for example often keep a journal of performance times to see if they’re improving.  Writing things down in a journal doesn’t have to be complex or difficult.  I used to keep a notepad in my guitar case, and then write things down.  But now it’s easier to customize a practice log or journal and utilize that either in print or electronically.

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I have linked two sample documents below.  Please feel free to download and use or edit at will.

PRACTICE LOG (PDF)

Weekly Practice Log (Word)

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What needs to be written down:

Here’s a sample entry:

Week of What is being Practiced? Time Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun Notes
6/8/10 A Major Pentatonic sweep (sextuplets) 10 mins 100bpm             Watch Pinky tension!!

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The goal is to write just enough to keep track of what you’re doing.  Feel free to add or drop items.  

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If you’re going to start really putting the hours into practicing, I would recommend that you give yourself enough material to do no more than an hour or two at one sitting. 

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Do multiple sittings a day if you want. (Personally – I can’t really focus very well after an hour or so consistently.  So if I can I do an hour in the afternoon and then another hour later).  

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It also depends on what I need to practice.  If it’s a difficult piece I need to pull together – I might have to do 4-5 sessions like this a day.  The point is to find what works for you and stick with it.

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I’m calling it a practice log or a journal – but really it’s a type of map –

by keeping a journal you can see where you’ve been, where you are and where you’re going.

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It’s a good idea to periodically go through some old journals to just kind of get a fix for where you’re at.

Keeping a practice journal can be a drag and a chore if you want to view it that way, but it can be hugely beneficial in seeing what it is you are actually getting done.  If you make it a part of the practice ritual it will just be something you do.

For example, the first thing an experienced player will do before they play anything on a guitar is to see if it’s in tune.  If you get used to just picking up the journal when you pick up a guitar to practice – it will become 2nd nature.

Now that you’re writing it down – here are some things to address while you’re practicing:

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Practice accurately.

You have to play slowly and accurately before you can play quickly and accurately.

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Pay attention!

Can you make out all of the notes?  Are you really nailing the rhythm?  Are there any open strings ringing or unwanted notes?  Are you practicing the same way that you’re going to play?  Is the guitar in the same position when you practice as when you play in front of an audience?

[*Special Note: Paying attention requires concentration which is why you can’t really practice while you’re watching TV.  You can play or warm up in front of a TV – you just can’t focus on the TV and the guitar at the same time.  If you can’t pay attention to something try moving on.  If you can’t move on, then stop and come back to it.  You will get much more done this way that by just mindlessly running fingering patterns*]

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Always use a metronome, recording or time keeping device when practicing.

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Isolate problem areas.

If you are learning a piece, there are often several areas that need more attention that the rest of the piece.  Isolate those areas (however small they may be) and develop them. When you have gotten more comfortable with the problematic areas –  begin to practice sections before and after the area.  Treat the problem area as a center and keep moving out from the center as necessary.

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Do it right the first time.

Paying attention allows you to make sure that you’re practicing correctly.  Practice correctly – play correctly.  Inherent in this idea is that you’re practicing at a tempo you’re comfortable enough that you can tell if you’re playing it correctly.

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Don’t go overboard.

Some people go from not practicing at all to trying to practice the entire day.  Music is built off of experience, growth and endurance – none of which comes quickly.  Moderation is a good thing.  Occasionally think of the long term, and use the marathoner’s strategy of pacing yourself.

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Persevere.

Establish a regimen and stick as close to it as you can. If you make practicing enjoyable – you’ll eventually start to look forward to it.  It’s okay to stop and take breaks from practicing as a regimen, just don’t forget to start up again.

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Don’t forget to play.

The whole point of practicing is to gain elements to utilize in playing music.  Play whenever possible, desired and/or required.  After all this is supposed to be enjoyable.

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All of this advice works off of the idea that you have specific goals in mind when practicing.  My suggestions for what to practice will be the subject of a later post.

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I hope this helps!

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If you like this post you may also like:

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PRACTICE MAKES BETTER AKA PRACTICING PART I

PROPER POSTURE IS REQUIRED FOR PROPER PERFORMANCE – PRACTICING PART II

TENSION AND THE SODA CAN OR PRACTICING PART III

DEFINITIONS AND DOCUMENTS OR PRACTICING PART IV

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PRACTICE WHAT YOU PLAY OR PRACTICING PART V

TESTING YOUR VOCABULARY OR PRACTICING PART VI

POSSESSION IS 9/10S OF THE LAW BUT PERCEPTION IS EVERYTHING OR PRACTICING PART VII

Some Useful Online Practice Tools

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FINDING THE DEEPER LESSON

MELVILLE, MADNESS AND PRACTICING – OR FINDING THE DEEPER LESSON PART 2

INSPIRATION VS. INTIMIDATION

What’s wrong with playing “Flight of the Bumblebee” for a world speed record?.

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Tension And The Soda Can Or Practicing Part III

Practicing Part III

In order to practice properly, attention needs to be paid to a number of different areas.  Today’s post addresses some issues regarding fretting hand tension as a precursor to proper form in practicing.

Fretting Hand Positioning and Tension

Many guitarists begin playing guitar without being aware of how much tension they are exerting on their fretting hand.  While the title refers to fretting hand fingers, hand tension is actually a complex coordination of muscles working in the hand and forearm.  The concept here is to talk about hand tension as it relates to your ability to move your fingers freely.

Here is an example that may help explain how much of a performance issue this can be.

For the purposes of this example, let’s imagine that you have taken a break from the rigors of guitar practice and have gone to spend the day at muscle beach with your friend Charles Atlas.  After arriving there and seeing miles and miles of Herculean figures – you have decided to show off to your friends and crush the can of soda you have been drinking.

Okay – hold your fretting hand out in front of you – like you were holding a soda can you were drinking from.

Really visualize the can.  Try to feel the ice cold metal against the palm of your hand.

Okay, now try to crush it.  But imagine that the can has been replaced with some infinitely strong material that can’t be crushed.  You don’t want to crush the imaginary can – but truly struggle against it.  If you’re doing the exercise properly, your arm is probably shaking from the exertion.

Okay – now try to move your fingers while you crush the can.  You may be able to move them a little but it’s going to be very difficult.  You should feel (or even see) a lot of tension in your forearm.

Now stop trying to crush the can.  Wiggle your fingers.  This should be much easier.

If you grip the guitar neck with too much tension, it’s the same as trying to crush the soda can.  If you are carrying tension it will be very difficult to move your fingers freely.

What follows is an exercise that can help with proper hand tension.

Proper Fretting Hand Tension Exercise

Sit in a comfortable chair (preferably without armrests) with your guitar around your neck as if you were going to play (you are wearing a strap aren’t you? If not you may want to read the last post.)

Relax your fretting hand by letting your arm hang fully extended by your side.  Wiggle your fingers a bit and try to relax as much as possible.

Take a deep breath.  While inhaling on that breath, make a fist.  As you exhale –  fully release the fist.  Just let your hand naturally relax into a position.  Look down at your hand.

Note – this is your hand in a relaxed position.

Now, keeping your hand in position, bend your elbow and bring your hand up to the neck of the guitar as if you were going to play.  Your fingers should be bent slightly at each knuckle (i.e. the fingers should be curved similar to the relaxed position).

Proper Fretting Hand Thumb Tension

Reverting back to the soda can example, it’s important that the thumb remain in the back of the neck as relaxed as possible as to not tense the rest of the hand.   This is something that I never thought about until I had studied with Jack Sanders.  So I need to thank him for bringing this to my attention in my own playing.

It’s also important to note that your hand position will change if you are doing a lot of string bending.  While it is possible to bend strings with your fretting hand thumb in the middle of the neck,  most people will be used to moving the thumb so that it is more on the bass string side of the fretboard to facilitate bending.   Since this isn’t the majority of what most people play on guitar – I view bending hand position as the exception rather than the rule.

The thumb acts as a balance to pressure from the fingers;  so the location of the thumb is very important.  Ideally the thumb should be in the middle of the guitar neck and typically in line with the middle finger or between the middle and ring finger.  What you are trying to do is put the thumb in an area of minimal tension.

Proper Fretting Hand Tension Exercise

Try playing a scale on the guitar.  If you think that your thumb is squeezing the back of the neck hard, try removing the thumb from the back of the fingerboard while you are playing.  Now gently and gradually, move the thumb back to the neck so that it is very lightly touching it.  Repeat as necessary.

Obviously a huge component in hand tension is how the fingers are actually connecting with the strings and that will be the subject of the next post on practicing.

I hope this helps!

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Proper Posture Is Required For Proper Performance – Practicing Part II

In the last post, I talked about some of the pre-requisites for setting up to practice.  While I want to discuss specific issues with  proper picking and fretting hand techniques, it’s important to address how the actual guitar is positioned when playing.

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When practicing, it is imperative to practice the same way consistently so that performance is consistent.

A key component of this is posture.

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First, a brief anecdote.  When I started playing guitar, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to how I was practicing or how I was holding the guitar.  I just paid attention to whether or not I was getting the notes out (more on what’s wrong with this in future posts).  I started noticing my live playing was really inconsistent.  Sometimes the solos I practiced came out fine and sometimes they were really sloppy.  I initially attributed it to nerves or adrenaline, but after reading a number of books on performance I was introduced to the concept of “muscle memory”, and realized the root of my problem.

For those of you who have never heard of this term, when performing repetitive tasks synapses actually rewire themselves in your brain to short cut the mental processing behind the activity.  This is known as “muscle memory”.  Muscle memory is different from your dad’s memory of where he might have set his car keys down, and more like words carved in stone.  On the plus side – if you’re doing things correctly – you don’t have to worry about it – but on the minus side if you have to fix something that’s ingrained in muscle memory  – it takes a lot of effort to erase them.

Here’s an example that illustrates this idea.  

If I am walking and need to tie my shoe lace –  “tie my shoe” is a short cut for the following steps (or some variation):

  1. Notice my shoe is untied
  2. Stop walking
  3. Bend down
  4. Grab one lace per hand
  5. Cross laces to opposite sides of shoe in an x shape
  6. Tuck one lace under another
  7. Pull laces taught
  8. Move laces in opposite direction
  9. Make a loop with the first lace (i.e. “bunny ears.”)
  10. Cross one “ear” over the other, in the opposite order of your overhand knot.
  11. Bend one loop over the other
  12. Pass the tip of the bent ear through the hole
  13. Pull the loops tight
  14. Double knot if need be

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Once you’ve mastered this skill,  you probably don’t have to put any thought into it at all.  You could easily have a conversation and do it at the same time.  A complex list of processes have been broken down into a single mental shortcut in this case called “tie my shoe”.

In music, muscle memory works the same way.  If you play a lick over and over again the same way your brain actually rewires itself so that the numerous physical events that go into playing “lick #7” in your brain just becomes a mental shortcut “lick #7”.

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In my first person anecdote above, because my playing position varied between sitting, standing, squatting and lying down – I wasn’t developing proper muscle memory.  Instead of learning one lick – my brain was trying to learn how to play that idea in a variety of contexts.  This sounds small – but if you’ve ever been in a situation where you weren’t able to nail a part you normally can – you know what I’m referring to here.

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The Solution?

My solution came in the form of a guitar strap.

Some people do not use guitar straps.  In playing steel string guitar, I believe that a guitar strap is every bit as important as a guitar string.  Again, if your hands are not in the same position when you practice as when you perform you will not have proper muscle memory and the chances of flubbing notes goes up dramatically.

The key to using a guitar strap is to make sure that the guitar sits on your frame the same way when you stand as when you sit.

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Note:

You may be asking.  Well – what about nylon string guitars?  While it’s pretty rare to see nylon string guitarists use a strap, if you see a number of players you’ll notice that the majority of the good ones have very consistent posture.  Posture is a big part of the classical pedagogical tradition and while flamenco guitar posture may be unorthodox with regards to the classical tradition, it is most definitely a consistent posture.

This is not to say that muscle memory isn’t flexible.  You don’t have to have your hands in exactly the same position or expect total failure.  If you’re playing live and you move around – your body will typically adapt to what’s going on and accommodate you.  If you like to practice sitting(and many people do unless they’re practicing with a band) having a consistent instrument position will help you perform more consistently when you stand – which is likely how you are going to perform unless you’re used to performing when sitting down.

Give it a try.  When practicing try adjusting your strap differently when you sit or when you stand and see if makes a difference over a couple of weeks.  You might be surprised.

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In the next post I’ll start the long process of addressing left and right hand placement, tension and the thumb (i.e. some common sense “secrets” that evade a lot of teachers and students).

Thanks for reading.

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