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For those about to blog…

Today, last year, I decided I was going to get a guitar, and perhaps some ability to play it. The idea had struck me before, but I was finally galvanized by the musical stylings of one Robert Berry.

And now, looking back, I can’t believe I didn’t do this before.

The experience at first was predictable: after the customary development of calluses, I began progressing along in a self-teaching book that I’d received from a friend — a remnant, I think, of his failed attempt to learn from it. Now, when I say progressing along, what I really mean is skipping the first hundred pages or so of history and general information not immediately useful, until the page that said “Okay, here’s how you fret an open E!” I made it through open E, D, and A, and their minor variants, finishing that first chapter. The next chapter then wanted me to use these three chords, ineptly strummed, to create some kind of music.

Now, at the time, I wasn’t aware of the exact tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas”, but I was fairly sure that it was somewhat more complex than three chords. So I said, “Screw this, I want to play real music,” put down the book, and looked up some tabs. If memory serves, the first thing I ended up on was “Otherside” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Specifically, the intro which is a very simple but melodic set of notes on the guitar.

The Chili Peppers
Me, out of tune

Learning from this, to actually play something real excited me beyond words. So proud was I of my achievement that I actually got out my laptop and set it up to start recording me. I even overlaid my playing with the Chili Peppers until I got it just right, and then took the assembled snippet of music ’round the house, desperate for approval.

What I played for them

After all of that, it gets a bit fuzzy. I do remember getting the tabs for “Code Monkey” and working through them. At one point, I was dumbstruck at how fast I was expected to move my hand. This is silly, I thought. No one can do this quickly with any accuracy. This man must be mad.

Of course, these days, I can play that riff with my eyes closed. The process getting here is a little tricky to define. I don’t think I ever picked that guitar book back up, although I did spend some quality time with this rather nice website offering a few free lessons that I thought were almost ideally constructed: a bit of theory, a bit of work for each hand, and then a chance to play some real music, even if only a few bars.

This came from my guitar, but unrepeatably so

The rest of it has been just playing around. Seeing what happens when I do this or that. It was in exactly this fashion that I accidentally uncovered the intro to the riff of the song Pointless: whilst picking away at the B string one day, I came across a series of notes that had an uncanny familiarity. Some more playing around and I had a pretty good concept for the riff itself. Of course, at this point, I had another very similar moment to when I first played “Otherside”: I ran over to my computer, started recording, made a rough version of it, and sent it off to Bob, eager for approval. (He was gracious enough to oblige, of course.)

What he heard (somewhat more loudly than I’d like)

There have been a number of eye-opening revelations, discoveries of sorts that exposed new vistas of sound. See, when I phrase it this way, it sounds really grand. But what I’m talking about is stuff like “discovering” the B and high E strings. For so long, I spent all my time on the lowest four strings, where power chords came easy and cheap, and you never had to worry about the piercing wail of the high E. But with the proper tone settings and/or palm muting, there are some rather lovely sounds to be found there, as “Pointless” can attest.

A few quick power chords

One of the other big revelations is just how incredibly large a part rhythm plays in music. I knew on some peripheral level that it had a bearing on matters, but it wasn’t until I learned to play the James Bond theme, of all things, that it became apparent. See, this is a thoroughly simple riff, consisting of, in total, seven different notes. But unless you play it just right, it sounds all wrong. And playing it right isn’t a matter of proper fretting, it’s a matter of timing. It’s hard to put in to words, because it was a sort of spiritual revelation, but it was profound.

I particularly like the ceaseless rhythm here

These days, though, I’ll pick up my guitar and just start picking away. Sometimes my hands will go to a particular riff from some song of real music, but in most cases, I’ll fiddle around and hope to come up with something that sounds interesting. But it makes for a great workout, especially for the fretting hand. A year’s worth of semi-aimless playing has gotten me to be comfortable with the frets in many different shapes.

Messing around results in this kind of questionable (and quiet) content

Where to go from here is a bit of tough question, really. Writing actual whole songs has proven a difficult task, despite a modest collection of fragments and ideas I’ve recorded over this past year. My theory on this is that I’ve taken the traditional approach to learning by experience to fragments and small riffs: read a lot, write a little, read a lot more, write a little more. But it is difficult to expand this algorithm to larger pieces such as whole songs, largely because of the unreliability of free tablature.

Basically, the system goes like this: some guy puts up what he thinks is the “right” way to play this song, on some site with an absurd number of popups (as they all seem to), and waits for people to come along and read it. Of course, people do, and then someone else comes along and tells him how he’s doing everything wrong. So this second guy published what he thinks is the right way to do things. It’s all very reminiscent of an unedited and unaccountable wiki. Think about everything you’ve been told about the supposed problems with taking facts from Wikipedia. Double that, and you’ve got the quality of these free sites.

While it’s pretty hard to dispute the “right” way to play the riff to, say, “Enter Sandman” by Metallica, just like it’s hard to dispute that Gambia is a small country in Africa, it’s pretty easy to get into a flamewar over who wrote up the guitar solo properly. A good example of this is the intro riff to “Sweet Child of Mine” by Guns ‘n’ Roses. As a sort of test, I decided to learn, perform, and record it all last night, to prove my progress to myself. It was always a favorite of mine in Guitar Hero 2, because it was decently complex. What I have is twangy and unsatisfactory, but it’s far too late to re-record it, so you get what I got.

The spirit is there

I think what this means is that I probably need to cough up some dough and take it to the next level. That’s not an entirely repugnant idea, given that this hobby hasn’t cost me a nickel outside my initial $200 investment in guitar and amp. I’m even still using the strings that came with this thing from the factory. They stay in tune and sound just fine, so I’ve yet to find a good reason to replace them.

Actually, that’s been the way of things with most of my gear. A few weekends ago, I took my axe over to the local Music-Go-Round to check out some amps. While I won’t deny that the $130 amp sounded better than the one that came included with my guitar, it certainly didn’t sound $130 better. Mostly it just had the advantage in that it had some effects simulation that, while cool, seemed somewhat useless. Maybe if it could give an authentic Rockman amplifier tone (of the sort that made Boston famous), that would be worth it.

Another intro to an unwritten song

Likewise, I ended up setting aside my SG and picking up some of the really nice (read: expensive) guitars they had hanging on the wall, and jamming with them. Maybe I wasn’t listening right, but I’ll be honest: I couldn’t hear a terribly big difference. Even going from the double-coil Gibsons to the single-coil Fenders, the main difference seemed to be the background hum of the single-coils. Sure they sounded different, but it seemed to me that the bridge pickup on my SG sounded pretty close to a single-coil, and the rhythm pickup gives a nice fat humbucker tone.

But I digress. My gear is still working (although my guitar strap could use replacing), and I’m still working at it. I haven’t taken any formal lessons, but I still would like to think myself a moderately competent guitarist, with room for improvement. I can pick up and run with most tabs rather quickly, and I hope I could do the same with real sheet music. I qualify that simply because my trial-and-error education has not gotten me a terribly solid grounding in music theory, especially sheet-music reading. I know there are twelve notes, with seven real notes, and five in-between notes. There’s also two sets of real notes without in-between notes, but I couldn’t name them off the top of my head. It’s just not the kind of information that’s been relevant of late.

The pacman sound I declared that I would able to play a year ago (really quietly)

My grandmother has often requested some sort of concert, and in truth, I’ve been afraid to attempt to acquiesce, mostly because of my lack of playing cogent songs. I suppose I really should see to remedying that, because it’s only so long before she becomes fed up with my delays and withholds dinner pending my performance.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. bxojr
    May 16, 2008 at 11:04 am

    You’ve made many of the same discoveries I did on the guitar, though in roughly one-tenth the time it took me. It probably took me more than a decade to reach the point where I considered myself a “moderately competent guitarist”; that’s partly because I never thought of myself as a guitarist at all, but rather a keyboard player who dabbled on the guitar.

    I’ve also always had an odd lack of interest in learning to play other people’s songs; knowing me, you’d think that I’d have quite a Beatles repertoire, but I don’t think I can play any of their stuff. This was a mistake: as you’ve found, the best way to learn a craft is to copy the work of a master. (And no, I’m not thinking of “Pointless” when I say that!)

    I’m humbled to be named as any kind of inspiration, but if I exemplify anything it is perhaps the truth that a person with only moderate skills on an instrument can actually accomplish a lot. The key is in knowing what you do well and exploring the possibilities of that, while simultaneously pushing those boundaries as your skills increase.

  1. January 4, 2010 at 7:58 pm

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