Wednesday, May 12, 2010

My Big Fat Fingers

I haven't written much about playing the guitar in a while. There hasn't been overly much to say. I'm coming up on a year and while I can bang away at some some songs in an almost passable fashion, there's not much I can play that's really listenable. Which, I suppose, is consistent with someone who's only been playing for a year. I guess. I don't know - I expected more by now.

I have a fair number of issues. I screw up easily, even on stuff I ought to know. There are certain chords that I have a VERY difficult time hitting, including F, Bm, B-flat and, oddly, Dm (which shouldn't really be all that hard). Combine the screw-ups with the chords that I just don't play well, and practically any song will sound off.

Also, as my guitar teacher endlessly (and correctly) reminds me, I tend to play too fast. I'm just not good with tempo, I guess.

But by far my biggest personal disappointment is that I seem to be physically incapable of only hitting one string at a time. No matter how I place my hand on the neck and my fingers on the strings, I invariably will hit the string next to the string I'm aiming for, just enough to mute it. Sometimes, if I set up my fingers really, really carefully, I can avoid this and get a chord to ring out pure like it's supposed to. Which, you'd think, would mean that I ought to be able to train myself to ALWAYS play like that and therefore ALWAYS sound like I want. Which may be true, but in practice even when I get my fingers right where they're supposed to be, within a few seconds of actually trying to play I find them touching the other strings again. I don't seem to be capable of holding them there without extreme concentration and remaining perfectly still (which, you can imagine, is contra-indicated for anyone attempting to play the guitar which tends to involve a fair amount of moving your hands and fingers around).

Worse, sometimes I CAN'T get a pure note, no matter how much time and effort I put into arranging my fingers just so. I can wiggle and stretch and do everything up to and including using my other hand to put them exactly where I want them and I just doesn't help - that finger is simply too thick not to brush against the next string over.

Honestly, I'm finding this extremely demoralizing. I'm never going to get the sound I want out of the instrument if I can't fix this. I joked to my instructor that I'm tempted to glue pencil erasers to the tips of my fingers so I'll have something narrow that I can use to get in there and hit just a single string. I'm not entirely sure it's a joke, though. If such a prosthesis existed, I'd be sorely tempted to try it out.

In terms of content, my son and I are trying to learn yet another scale. To date, we've never learned any of the 4-5 scales we've been assigned well enough to play it consistently without screwing it up (even after weeks of consistent practice), much less be able to play it as a solo while the other player (my son or me) plays a blues rhythm along with it. That's supposed to be our current goal with the E Phrygian mode we're working on now, but I don't see it happening anytime soon. I don't think I've ever made it through the whole thing (after 4-5 days of practice) without messing it up. We've also gone back to some of the older scales since we're pretty rusty on them. Same deal - at least one screw-up every time we play it).

We can play Paul McCartney's "Yesterday" passably well, though we struggle with certain particular spots and I struggle in general with the B-flat barre chords.

I'm really enjoying working on "Dust in the Wind" by Kansas. We got the intro (the first 16 measures before the vocals begin) some months ago and worked and worked and worked on it. It's not really hard, but learning the finger-picking pattern well enough to play it without messing up all the time takes some effort. Now I'm moving on to the first verse and it's MUCH harder. The intro is nice - there are three C chord variants and 3 A chord variants and they simply rotate - you play the three Cs, then the three As, then the Cs again (starting with a different variant but still playing all three in the same order) then the As (again, starting with a different variant than the first time around). Once you master the picking-pattern, learning the six chord variants is really pretty easy. And the finger-picking pattern never changes throughout the intro.

Once you're out of the intro, though, it's time to go to school bigtime. Both of the things that made the intro easy(ish) are gone. The picking-pattern which, in the intro, had been the same four strings over and over, is shot to hell because the chords now use all six strings. Oddly, even the Am chord, which was IN the intro, has an extra string added just to confuse me. Oh, and that extra string sounds like crap, by the way, because it's always muted by my fat finger on the string next to it.

Anyway, the pick-pattern is still similar, but vastly more complex because it's bouncing around between five and six strings. In addition, the chords are ALL different (even the one - Am -that's technically the same is changed because of the pick-pattern, noted above) and they occur in no related or predictable order. Instead of C-C-C, A-A-A, C-C-C, A-A-A, you now have C-G/B-A-A, G-D-A-A. Ugh, it's a mess. And it's the song where the muted strings are most noticeable, because of all the finger-picking. When you pick at a muted string, it sounds way different than it's supposed to, and where I'm expecting to hear pure high notes I'm just hearing dull thunks instead. It's disheartening.

My instructor keeps telling me I'll figure it out and I want to believe him, but honestly I don't. I think if I were going to figure it out, I'd be getting better at it after a year and I'm just not. Intellectually I know there are guys out there with fingers the size of bratwursts who play the guitar beautifully. That doesn't change the little voice inside me that keeps saying "Yeah, but you really, really, really try to do it, and it just never works. If it were possible, you'd have done it by now."

I don't plan to stop playing or anything. Not right away. But every time I hear one of those dull, muted chords, it takes some of the enjoyment out of playing the instrument, and that's the opposite of what's supposed to be going on. If I ever do get over this problem, I'll be sure to post about it.

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