Last week I had lunch with a classmate who was a close friend during my growing up years. I was reminded of how much an inspiration he was to me after I first heard him play at elementary school. And reminiscing about our journey as kids trying to learn how to play guitar, I remembered how excited I was to figure out a top 40 hit or a riff from some player I really liked. As a raw beginner, it was so challenging to try and understand how the song went, not to mention the difficulty of figuring out the chord voicing and whether or not a capo was being used, or if the guitar was de-tuned, or even something more foreign to my fledgling ears. [Read more…]
One of the bigger hurdles when first learning to read music is understanding the concept of sharps & flats.
First, I want to try and get the definitions in place and then I’ll use a few visual aids to help make it more clear. [Read more…]
I started hounding my parents for my first guitar when I was 7 years old. At the time Dad couldn’t really afford a decent instrument and to make matters worse, I’m left handed. When I was a kid there were not a ton of inexpensive left handed guitars available.
So, my Dad found a cheap acoustic right handed guitar that we modified so it would take strings upside down. I remember the action being pretty high off the frets, but we didn’t know that we could have lowered it, at least a little. And every time I recounted this story for people, the string height would get higher and higher; maybe six inches or so (it was really about a quarter of an inch). You know, it’s like telling your kids you used to walk 3 miles in the snow to get to school every day. There’s just something satisfying about embellishing a story with a little more drama than truth.
I must have wanted to play badly, because I rarely put it down. It wasn’t until 4-5 years later that I got an electric guitar… way, way, much, much better. Another story, another article. [Read more…]
This is for the player who’s wondering when to strum up and when to strum down…
Strumming is a skill progressively improved on over time. In the beginning stages, the difficulty of trying to create a rhythm guitar sound that has a good beat and is easy to dance to can make you want to curl up in the fetal position.
It’s important to stay determined, but it’s also important to start with some good tips to help you be successful and develop good habits.
I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that guitar learner-players usually come in one of two categories:
The ‘feel’ player has a subjective (sort of built in) awareness of where they are in the music. Their mind is already saying, “I know when and what to play, just let me hit it with a 2 by 4 until I get it figured out. Sort of clumsy, but can produce great results with a bit of coaching.
The ‘rote’ player needs more information. In fact, they benefit a great deal from building a systematic routine or method to help them remember and repeat that technique or pattern until they get it.
Before I continue, I have plenty of evidence to support both methods of learning. And with plenty of encouragement, both learner types can achieve whatever they put their mind to. (never end a sentence with a preposition…)
So, for the player who is learning to strum, here are some ideas to help you get your bearings. Each of these steps are very important to study until they become second-nature.
- Learn to count out loud with a metronome up to and including sixteenth notes. Let’s use a 4/4 time signature for an example.
- For quarter notes: count 1 2 3 4
- For eighth notes: count 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
- For sixteenth notes: count 1-e-&-a 2-e-&-a 3-e-&-a 4-e-&-a
- Try exercises (like these) with a metronome:
1, 2, 3-e-&-a, 4-e-&-a or 1 & 2 & 3 & 4-e-&-a
- Mix & match all the combinations until you can do them easily. Consider it a way of life for a while.
- I believe this to be true about learning easy to complex rhythms; “If you can count it, you can play it.”
- Now, assign arm movement to every partial beat. But you may be asking this question: “Why do I need to count to the sixteenth note level?
- The most obvious answer is that when you strum most of the time, your arm will go up and down in a sixteenth note rhythm. Every up and down movement will count. It won’t matter if you’re hitting strings or not, strumming quarter notes, eighth notes, or sixteenth notes. Your arm will always have to travel back up in order to reset for the next down stroke.
- There are some advanced exceptions where we may exaggerate the strum in some way, but for now the following will be true at large.
D = arm in downward movement U = arm in upward movement
For quarter notes: count 1 2 3 4
D D D D
For eighth notes: count 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
D D D D D D D D
For sixteenth notes: count 1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a
D U D U D U D U D U D U D U D U
- If you’ve really worked on counting, notice that a down stroke will happen on each downbeat, and on each “&” upbeat. This comes from using a sixteenth note movement of the strumming arm no matter which type of beat is being played. Also, notice that upstrokes will happen on the “e” and “a” sixteenth notes in the pattern.
- Lastly, make sure to loosen your grip on the guitar pick. If your grip is tight, it will be very difficult to strike the strings consistently, especially on up strokes.
Some of you may need to learn to count skillfully before you can strum. That’s OK! Use these exercises to get comfortable, then work to apply the up and down strokes. It won’t happen overnight, but don’t give up.
Until next time…
So… I think of strumming as something I do with a pick in my hand (or not) and my arm suspended in the air, pretty much free to float over the strings in a rhythmic up and down motion. I may hit a group of strings or all six. I may only use down strokes, but I’ll keep it moving and comfortable, as long as I’m strumming.
Picking’s different by far. Because I have to play specific strings and even melodies on multiple strings, I can’t swoop down and attack those notes from mid-air. I won’t be able to play very accurately if my arm is hovering and then decides to pick a specific string or couple of strings in an attempt to play, much less repeat a catchy phrase.
With note by note melodies (finger-style is included in this as well), the picking hand has to be anchored somehow. For new players, this seems really difficult to understand until the teacher throws out a few tips to help gain some control. Here are a few options for anchoring the hand when playing specific notes.
- Rest the wrist on top of the saddle and leave it there when playing notes (electric or acoustic, doesn’t matter). Strangely, the strings will sound nice and clear with the wrist on the saddle. If strumming is also needed during the song, lift the arm and strum (move the arm forward), then re-position the wrist again (move the arm back) to play the individual notes. I find it fairly easy to alternate between these two (my recommendation most of the time).
- Extend the pinky finger and touch the guitar (wood or soundboard) below the strings. The rest of the hand and fingers will be reasonably free to move while playing. I do find it slightly uncomfortable with my pinky finger sticking straight out, but a bit of practice will groove this technique in no time.
- In some more complicated cross or alternate picking exercises, wrap the 3rd and 4th fingers loosely underneath the 1st string. It’s amazing how well the hand will stabilize, plus the hand can pivot (reposition) by sliding up and down the 1st string. I like this for playing faster passages.
See if these ideas will make the transition between strumming and picking a little less confusing.
Until next time…