Thursday, January 14, 2010

My Other Guitar Teacher

(Shh, don’t tell Jim)

I have a great guitar teacher named Jim Giannetto. He’s very patient, very clear, and is good at understanding what I’m not understanding and then explaining it in a different way that makes sense to me. He’s good with my son, who’s the actual student (I’m technically along for the ride), challenging him to improve without pushing too hard. Also, his instruction is a combination of practical technique (such as how to form a progressive chord or bar chord, how to strum or finger-pick, and even skills like vibratos and hammer-ons) plus abstract music theory to explain why the instrument works the way it does. After more than seven months of playing, for instance, I’m finally beginning to understand how a given major chord is comprised of the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the octave for that key. It’s taken the full seven months for that to sink in, but like I said, Jim’s patient. Jim's background in classical guitar is a big help in teaching my son (and me) to be a musician, not just a guitar player. I think that's important.

The one thing it’s hard to do with Jim, though, is pause him, rewind a few seconds, hit play, and then repeat that process 25 or 30 times. Usually that’s not necessary, but this week he hit us with a new song and so far, the song’s pounding me into the ground. The song is Carol King’s 70s hit You’ve Got a Friend, made famous by James Taylor. The reason we’re learning the song is to focus on two new concepts – Major 7th chords (which, it turns out, are very different from 7th chords, even though they’re also built off the Major chord. Whoever named these things needs a punch in the nose.) and finger-picking. It’s a beautiful song, but its complexity level is off the charts as compared to the songs we’ve been playing. For instance, it has 17 different chords, 11 of which we’ve never played before. By way of comparison, Take it Easy and Peaceful Easy Feeling by the Eagles each use 5 chords (G, C, D and then a couple of others). After that we learned Twelve-Bar Blues, which is pretty basic and only uses 3 chords (though it’s arguably not a complete song on its own). Our Christmas song, No Place Like Home for the Holidays, used around 10 chords.

Plus, the intro to You’ve Got a Friend is complex as hell, requiring a combination of finger picking plus chords we’ve never used before plus quick-changes between some of those chords. It’s kicking my ass. Though, granted, I’ve only been working on it for a few days. Still, aaargh! The ass-kicking, it hurts!

Jim’s always telling us to listen to and play along with the song. Usually I’m bad and I don’t do this. I remember we did try it once waaaay back when we first started to play, and Glenn Fry just left us in the dust on Peaceful Easy Feeling. We were still trying to remember how to play the chords and he was wailing away on the second page already. We kind of gave up on the idea after that and didn’t really get back to it.

This time, though, we’re playing a song that I’m not intimately familiar with. I mean, sure, I’ve heard You’ve Got a Friend probably hundreds of times in my life, on the radio or as Muzak in some department store, but I never really listened to it and sang along with it the way I’d do with the Eagles. So I pulled up YouTube and played an old 1971 BBC recording of Taylor and King performing the tune. It skips the intro, but when the video started out, I could see Taylor’s hands on his guitar for a few seconds, just long enough to see that I didn’t quite recognize what he was doing either on the frets or down where he was strumming the strings.

So since I was on YouTube anyway, I checked out a couple other videos (one of which shows him as a much older man in 1998 – I’d never have realized it was the same guy if it hadn’t said so) and they didn’t really clarify anything. The music Jim gave us has tablature, but I suck at reading tabs, so that wasn’t really helping me much either. I know, tabs are supposed to be the easy way to play, but I’m just not used to them.

But as I poked around YouTube, I found a guy showing how to play the intro. Now, a lot of times, the YouTube “how to play song XYZ” videos aren’t that good. They either don’t point the camera at the right part of the guitar at the right times, or they go too fast, or they basically assume you already know how to play what they’re showing you how to play and they talk over your head. This guy, though, was slow, thorough, clear, and really seemed to understand how to use video to teach this song. So I watched it a couple of times, rewinding and replaying key parts, then yesterday my son and I sat down in front of the PC with our guitars and started to learn it.

It’s not a panacea. In part, my son doesn’t really like doing new stuff at first, and it takes him usually about a week to warm up to anything that’s radically different than what we’ve done before. He also isn’t a big fan of proper form, even if it would make it easier. So as we were working on the first four notes of the intro, he’s plucking the strings with these great big strumming motions instead of just moving his fingertips. We’ll get there, but it’s going to take a while. Also, hitting the controls on the keyboard when you’re sitting a few feet away and have your guitar in your hands isn’t real easy. But it’s easier than making Jim repeat the same thing 35 times until it gets through my thick head and down into my even thicker, lazy, stupid, incompetent fingers.

It turns out that this fellow, Josh Cho, is a professional musician in New York City. He performs at events in a Hawaiian Ukulele band, he gives private lessons, and he operates a boatload of websites including Cheap Guitar Zine. It’s obviously an online business for him – it’s covered in ads and not all of the video lessons are free, but quite a few are. And why not? Brother’s got to make a living. What sets it apart from a lot of other video guitar demonstrations I’ve seen is that he breaks it down into very small, almost idiot-proof chunks that are enormously helpful when you’re, well… guitar challenged.

It’s going to take some time to get the basics of this song down (and honestly I haven’t even watched all three parts of Cho’s video lesson for this song, which weighs in at over 16 minutes total), probably months. But rather than focusing on how much there is to it that we don’t know how to play, I’m trying hard to look at how much we’ll have learned once we’re finally able to play it proficiently. That’s 11 new chords, plus some very cool finger-picking, and the theory behind the (very 70s-sounding) Major 7th chords. I know Jim will get us there eventually, and I’m glad to have a little help from Josh when we really need to zoom in on something and learn it at our own pace.

A quick note on the Cheap Guitar Zine links above – that site has Google ads splattered all over it in different places – top, sides, middle, bottom, everywhere. Don’t assume that everything you click on is going to take you to more of Josh Cho’s work. Look for the words “ads by Google” as a clue that it’s a link to somewhere else. Know of more solid guitar how-to sites? Post them in the comments!

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