Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Times When You Don't Suck

Are the greatest times of all

I whine a lot here about what a crummy guitar player I am. Actually I'm probably not all THAT horrible, just inexperienced. It's not as if I'm tone deaf or can't remember how to make the basic progressive chords or other things that might make you think that I was hopeless as a musician. The problem I have is probably one of expectations and patience. Everybody who picks up a guitar wants to spend three minutes getting familiar with it, and then be able to crank out some world-class riffs like they're channeling the spirit of Jimi Hendrix. Everybody knows, deep down, that it doesn't work that way, but that doesn't change the fact that it's what they (I) want. I want to play music. I want it to sound good. No, I want it to sound amazing. I want to be Eric Clapton or Prince just burning up their fretboards playing the solo to While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

But it's also a problem of patience. It may be that one day I'll really be a guitarist that other people besides me and my family would actually want to listen to. I can't be sure of it, but it's possible. It's not necessary, frankly - it's extremely unlikely that I'll ever play for anyone but myself and my family. I certainly don't plan to. But it's possible.It's not going to happen anytime soon, however. I have to be patient. To learn any instrument takes many, many months to get good at. And a first instrument surely takes the longest of all, because you have to learn so much music theory, musical notation and so many concepts that a more experienced musician already knows.

And that's hard, because your expectations and your patience both go largely unrewarded for such a long time. We started with two Eagles songs that needed only a handful of basic progressive chords to play. But even after my son and I basically knew the chords and could make them (most of the time) quickly and without error, those Eagles songs continued to sound like crap month after month after tedious month.

Nine months, though, does make a difference. It an amazing feeling when you realize that you have, indeed, made progress. In the last week or so, I've experienced this revelation with regard to four different guitar-related topics.

The first big breakthrough came while I was practicing the intro to Dust in the Wind. I'm at the point where I can run through the first 16 measures and play it correctly about two times out of five. That's huge progress for me, but the real breakthrough came when I picked up my instrument one day and Dust in the Wind just sounded awful. One note in particular was seriously wrong. I tried again - still wrong. I checked my fingers, since my pinky has a tendency to sometimes (often) land on the wrong string). Nope - still wrong. I seemed to be doing everything right, but that note just sounded sour. So I pulled out my trusty electronic tuner and VOILA! Somehow the B string on my guitar had gone wickedly out of tune, to the point where it was practically a C. Up until this point, my ear for notes has been pretty poor. I basically only tune my guitar before a lesson because it bugs my instructor if it's out of tune, but I can't really tell the difference between in-tune and out-of-tune. Or, at least, I couldn't before. Now, apparently, I can tell the difference, at least if it's severe enough. I count that as major progress!

The next revelation came when I sat down to play a completely new piece of music and got it pretty much right away. Our assignment two weeks ago was Sunshine on my Shoulders by John Denver. The goal, really, was to learn the B-minor chord, which is a 5th string root barre chord. I still don't play Bm very well, but everything else about that song came together really well. But Sunshine was never my favorite John Denver song. My favorite, when I was a kid, was always Country Roads. So I found a version of Country Roads that seemed to be in the correct key (thanks to the Guitar League's website) and discovered that I could do a pretty credible job of that song, also. Granted, it still has that darn Bm barre chord in there, but aside from that it's actually rather listenable. Certainly a heck of  a lot better than the original two songs - Take it Easy and Peaceful Easy Feeling - sounded, even after months of practice.

Then I picked up yet another song - this one a folk song called Beggars to God by Bob Franke that I got off of the Empty Hats website. Empty Hats is a regular band that plays at the Sterling Renaissance Festival and Beggars has been part of their repertoire for a decade or more. It's a song I know fairly well and, again, I found that I could pick it up and play it immediately and without butchering it too badly. That's where I want to be - to be able to pick up something I like and just play it! Now, granted, I'm still limited by anything with complex chords I don't know (most notably barre chords or anything that's not a Major, Minor or 7th chord, including a wide range of suspendeds, sharps, flatted 7ths and other stuff) or with complex solos or extensive finger-picking. I mean, I'm well aware of how far I have to go, right? It's just that I'm getting SOMEWHERE at last. Actually being able to pick up a piece of music I know and play it rocks bigtime.

All of which led me to my fourth revelation, helped in part by the one above - I now have an actual repertoire of songs I can play reasonably well. If you combine the music from our instructor with the book of Renn Faire songs I bought at Sterling plus a handful of tunes I've found online, there are quite a few pieces I can play capably. Which is the whole point of this guitar business in the first place! Woo! Success!

Take it Easy
Peaceful Easy Feeling
Wave Over Wave
The Mingulay Boat Song
Drunken Sailor
Wild Rover
Beggars to God
Sunshine on my Shoulders*
Country Roads*

*except for Bm, which still needs work

I'm not including the book of 15-20 Christmas songs that I bought in December, although I actually found that I could play most of those pretty well. I'm also not including the 12-bar blues, because until I'm able to do something more with it than just playing those twelve basic bars, it's not very interesting. But trying to do anything more elaborate messes me up badly, so it's clear that I haven't really mastered it yet.

Still - yay! That's a decent enough batch of songs that I can actually play. I mean, not at the level of the pros - there's nothing fancy about them and generally I'm just doing my best to mimic the original artist without really adding anything. On American Idol they'd call it boring karaoke. . But there's a D Suspended 4th that I add to the Country Roads chorus that I think sounds really nice, so it's not as if I'm incapable of thinking about the music critically. I just usually have all I can do to force my fingers to behave.

But taken as a whole, that's a big payoff. Patience is all well and good, but everyone has their limits. What fuels patience is incremental reward. It's easier to be patient when you can see that you're getting somewhere. You're finally meeting your expectations. You're not sucking for the very first time, and those times are the best!


  1. While my ukulele gently weeps.


  2. So happy to hear you are finally in a rather happy place with your music. I know it takes a really lonnnggg time for some of us to master a point at which we can look forward to sitting down and playing for our own pleasure - and actually enjoying it.

    It can only get better (of course, with lots of practice).

  3. That was amazing! Now I'm back to lamenting my guitar incompetence. :)

  4. Hey, I know what you mean. After about a 20 year absence, I'm getting back to guitar - getting my fingers to re-learn some chords. Frustrating; nowhere near the (slight) speed I used to have. But you do have a good sampling of tunes; I'm kinda back to 'baby tunes' (Amazing Grace; Jambalaya, etc.,) until it finally stops hurting, and some modicum of speed returns.

    Good luck on your music adventure!

  5. Thanks, Rich. I don't know which would be better/worse - learning everything for the first time (and being frustrated when it doesn't work and not knowing quite WHY it doesn't work) or re-learning everything you once knew (and being frustrated when it doesn't work the way you KNOW it ought to). Still, there are lots of worse ways to spend some time, so from that perspective it's all good.

    Best of luck to you as well!