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Guitar tips

January 4, 2010 Leave a comment

I was recently quoted by my cousin, who repeated two statements I made as axioms on the topic of learning to play the guitar. Both were offhanded comments, the product of my rumination on almost two years of guitar playing.

The first was my take on an old concept, one of the first stumbling blocks for prospective guitarists: the more your fingers hurt one day, the less they hurt the next. Obviously, this rule suffers from diminishing returns: when your fingers aren’t sore after playing for an hour (yes, they do toughen up that much), you’re done with this.

The second axiom is that guitar picks have legs. They will move from where you swear you left them, they will vanish with frightening regularity, but they will always eventually turn up again. The best advice I can offer to cope is to treat your picks like friends. If you can’t find your marbled, red-and-black, heavy, Fender pick to play with, but a textured, matte red, medium-light is laying around looking for some action, pick him up and have some fun.

In other words, we have a third axiom from this: do something different every day. Don’t be afraid to use a different pick, or even no pick at all. It’ll be strange, but you’re guaranteed to learn something. Even if it’s only why nobody else does what you just tried.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that unstructured, improvisational playing–what I’ve come to think of as just “jamming”is as important as structured exercises like practicing scales. Of course, there’s no reason that your jamming can’t be scales. All that matters is that you play for fun and keep it enjoyable instead of rigidly adhering to schedules or whatever. Jamming is where you practice until things become smooth and seamless: chord changes, slides, bends, and strumming.

However, you can’t entirely eschew formal exercises and music theory forever. This is the problem I’m running in to right now in my own playing: I’ve still only really mastered the C Major scale and still only know the original 8 or 10 chords I learned early on. The rest has been a lot of speed and dexterity practice that makes it so that I can play a few mean licks, but I still have to plod through reading guitar sheet music.

But as I’ve found repeatedly in my time on the guitar, I’ll learn it–whatever it is– eventually. This gives us the sixth axiom: don’t worry, you’ll get there.

When I was working on the first piece of recognizable music I ever learned, the intro to “Otherside” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, I remember being baffled by how they expected me to play those quarter notes because my fingers just wouldn’t move that fast. If you follow the link and listen to those first few audio clips, you can hear how I finally was able to play in time, but my playing was.. jagged. Twangy. That’s where the jamming comes in. That’s what practice fixes.

When I first looked at the three basic guitar chords (E, D, and A), I was baffled how I would ever learn to memorize all the places I had to put my fingers for each one. Ditto for learning the C Major scale, with its twelve notes on each of the six strings. Heck, I once wondered if it was even possible for me to learn to tell when a guitar was out of tune.

And yet through practice, I now know all these things and others. So, stop worrying about how intimidating it all seems and just start playing. Don’t worry. You’ll get there.

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