Tuesday, September 21, 2010

`Intermediate' Means to Suck at a Whole New Level

My son and I are at the transition-point from beginner to intermediate guitar. It isn't that we've really mastered all the basics of the beginner content. Far from it, in fact. It's just that there's nothing more to learn there - we just have to practice it until we get it right (or give up. Or die. Whichever comes first.).

Beginner guitar involved all the major and minor "natural" chords. We learned basic strum patterns. We learned a wide array of "other" chords, too - quite a few sevenths, some bass chords, (with which to do ascending and descending baselines), some power chords and a number of barre chords. We learned quite a bit of music theory, including how major chords are formed from the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of the root's octave.

We finished off our "basic-level" content by learning to read music (at least at a basic level), and tying it in to learning all the notes on the fretboard at first- and second-position. Eventually, we'll learn all the notes on the neck, but right now the first five frets is more than sufficiently challenging. That ought to be okay, though - I'm not sure who said it, but I recently heard the quote "You make all your money in the first four frets." My interpretation of that quote is that unless you're planning to be a guitar legend (which I'm surely not), you'll spend the overwhelming majority of your time playing chords at that end of the guitar. I'm not entirely certain I agree - I've spent the last year looking closely at the hands of any guitarist I saw, live or on TV, and there was definitely a wide disparity amongst them in terms of where they played, whether or not they used a capo, and whether they played mostly standard "natural" chords or a lot of barre chords. But I have no doubt that I could probably be very happy if I just mastered those first 4-5 frets.

So now we're playing lots of individual notes, rather than chords, and, as usual, I'm terrible at it. I'm terrible at remembering the musical notation on the sheet music, I'm terrible at hitting the notes I'm aiming for (instead of the string on one side of it or the other), I'm terrible at using good form as I position my fingers over the strings, and I'm STILL terrible at hitting the string I'm aiming for without also touching (and muting) the string to either side of it. Aaargh! I always figured that by the time I'd been playing for a year I'd have fixed some of these problems, but I haven't really.

In fact, I've recently noticed just how bad I am at some of those things I learned months and months ago. My son, for instance, always "walks" his fingers onto a chord, by which I means that he positions first one finger, then the next, then the last, rather than just snapping them all right into place. It slows him down and it's going to be a hard habit for him to break. I'd thought that I wasn't too big a culprit of this behaviour, but it turns out I am - just not with the most common notes. I don't do it with C, D, A, Em or G, for instance. But I definitely do it with Dm, for example. And anything that I didn't learn back in the first couple of months of playing I'm apt to do it with as well. Worse, I've discovered EXACTLY how horrible some of my more complicated chords sound.

I've mentioned before (here and in prior articles) how bad I am at barre chords. There are certain key chords that I use a lot that I really want and need to be good at, and it's just not happening. These include a full F chord, a Bm chord, and an F#m chord (yes, believe it or not, I need F-sharp-minor chord in several songs). I knew I wasn't happy with how they sounded, but I was curious whether perhaps they were supposed to sound... well... crummy. So I did a little test. My teacher had lent me a capo, so I used it instead of doing the barre with my index finger. This ensured a good, solid barre, and it also made it easier to hit the other string positions that I needed to hit. The result? The most beautiful, resonant, clear chords I'd ever heard. And a crushing lesson in just how awful those chords sound when I play them.

So yeah - I'm now intermediate at sucking. There's progress for ya. I guess I'll keep working on it.

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