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Musical Embellishments, Part 1

Sat, 10/07/2017 - 10:10
Yet another great idea from Tony in Australia. He was wondering about embellishments in the structure of songs. This is a really fun subject because these little tweaks can make that song your own. First, we’ll look at chord embellishments.
Of course, the larger question is whether or not you want to play a song exactly like the original artist. In some cases, leaving things as they are maintains the original intent of the writer and the song sounds just fine as it is. Nothing wrong with that. Some songs demand a minimalist approach to be effective. Sometimes though the recipe need a few more spices. This is especially true if the chord structure already has interesting nuances beyond the straight scale-line triads. Wait a minute, Gene? What are those?
I’ve written about the importance of understanding scale-line triads before (search back through my posts for a complete explanation) but in a nutshell it comes down to this. Almost all popular music is based on the major diatonic scale. There are many other scales of course, and many are used in formats like jazz, world music, and blues. But the major diatonic scale (we know it as do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do) is the melodic base of much of the Western popular music heard and played for at least 100 years. Each note in that scale has a corresponding triad chord, which is built using notes in the key. The formula goes like this:
I (major), II (minor), III (minor), IV (major), V (major), VI (minor), VII (diminished, or with flatted root, major).
Adding notes to those chords or moving one of the notes in those triads up or down one half-step or a whole step adds some musical spice. Keep in mind however that our brains have been programed to know and be most comfortable with chords that are built entirely of notes in the key (those scale-line triads above). The more notes in a chord that are NOT in the key, the more disturbing – or some might say, interesting – that chord will sound in relation to the others and in relation to the major diatonic scale on which the melody is most likely based. Good songwriters almost always “resolve” one of those outside chords on the very next change with a chord that IS in the scale-line. This makes our brains go…. Ahhhh…. that’s better! In other words, embellished chords are usually used judiciously.
So here a just a couple of examples. In my opinion, the most commonly used embellishment is the suspended chord. To change a major chord into the suspended version, raise the 3rd of the chord by one-half step. This can be quite dramatic and interesting if the chord voicing you’re playing includes two thirds, usually an octave apart. An example would be first position C Major. From the lowest note to the highest, you’re playing the chord like this: Root, 3rd, 5th, Root, 3rd   (C, E, G, C, E, strings 5 – 1). By raising the 3rd on the 4th string from an E to an F, you’ve developed some subtle dissonance in the chord (play just the F and the high E string together to hear it by itself). Players will often then resolve that suspended note back to the original note in the chord. Many songwriters use the suspended chord for “coloring” in almost every song they play. James Taylor is one example. Joni Mitchell also does it in the many open tunings she uses. Listen to the change at the end of just about every line of “Both Sides Now” and you will hear her do it and then immediately resolve the sound to the previous chord.
It’s worth learning the suspended version of all the Major chords you commonly use and try inserting one here and there, especially on chords that last more than two beats. A nice effect, for sure!
The next embellishment you’ll hear again and again in modern singer/songwriter tunes involves adding a note to existing chord, either Major or minor. These are the minor 9th and Major 9th . Understanding this is a bit more involved because in guitar music players sometimes refer to a 9th chord (which includes the dominant 7 note plus the 9) when they really mean a Major 9th but that one is another critter altogether. It’s not important to understand that right at this moment, although it is worth your time to delve into chord construction that involves four or more notes in a chord at some point if you’re going to truly understand chord theory.
No, we are talking about taking a straight Major or minor triad and adding the 9th to it. The 9th is the note that is one whole-step above the root. Here are some examples. In some cases for ease of fingering, depending upon the inversion or voicing of the original chord you are playing you may have to eliminate one of the notes in the triad. That is a huge can of worms that I don’t want to get into to avoid giving you a headache so for now anyway, let’s just accept that on face value. Some will sound better than others, that’s the bottom line….for now!
Two very common Major 9ths I’ve seen used lately are CMaj9 (C, E, G, D, E, strings 5 – 1) and FMaj9 (A, F, G, C, F, strings 5 – 1). Many of the younger singer/songwriters like Sarah Jarosz, Iron & Wine, Joan Shelley, others, use these and other Maj9ths frequently, in some cases more often than the straight major chord.
Minor 9ths (no 7th ) add a nice almost jazzy touch to a minor chord. Two of the most common are Em9 (E, B, E, G, B, F#, string 6 – 1) and Am9 (A, E, A, B, E, strings 5 – 1). Resolving the Em9 to Em (lowering the F# back down to the open E natural on the 1st string) and resolving the Am9 (raising the open B back to a C – the 3rd of the chord – on the 2nd string) can be quite dramatic, especially if you’re finger picking.
Those are just two ways to add some embellishments to your chords, there are dozens of other ways (single note scales between chords, chromatic tones inside chords, etc.) so the trick is to experiment. Also, study what some of your favorite artists do; you’ll often find the little things they do to chords happen again and again in various songs. This is loosely called… Find your own!
Peace & good music,
Categories: Acoustics

Effects and their affect

Thu, 09/21/2017 - 10:39
For many years I’ve been seeking “perfect” tone from my acoustic guitars, whatever that is. OK, to my ear I kind of know what I consider perfect tone but I totally know that my opinion may not jibe with what others want. In a nutshell, I want the purest, most resonant sound that I can get from an acoustic guitar.
So I am always conflicted when I hear a talented guitarist using effects, whether machine created or done by the player. For example, I recently listened to and watched a very talented young guitarist via some links he posted on one of the guitar forums. He has great chops and his arrangements of popular songs for solo guitar are quite advanced and pleasing to hear, except for one thing: he insists on “tapping” and “slapping” on the back beat between just about every chord or phrase he plays. Now I realize this is a widely accepted technique in flamenco music and also in some forms of latin guitar music, but to me it is just….annoying. After listening to a few of his tunes my reaction was – just STOP that!!!! You don’t need to do that!!! Your playing and arrangements are awesome on their own, why insert percussive noise that detracts from the sound of your guitar? Is he afraid the listener won’t know where the beat is?!? Who knows?
In flamenco music – which is essentially back up music for dancers – I guess it makes sense. Being totally bonded with the dancer in a rhythmic sense is vital. But my guess is that the young guitarist I mentioned doesn’t play for many people who are going to dance to his arrangements of Stevie Wonder or Phil Collins songs. I could be wrong of course. In any case, to my ear it is a distraction from some otherwise excellent playing.
How about effects boxes? They are hugely popular these days with hundreds if not thousands of new ones coming out every year. I confess that back in the 70s when I was enamored with the style of players like Pat Metheny, John Scofield and Larry Carlton I used a phase shifter and stereo chorus quite a bit with my electric guitars. But when I stood back a bit (perhaps after realizing that I was never going to be as good as any of those guys!) and began again paying attention to my blues idols I realized that except for perhaps a bit of reverb and subtle distortion produced by their amps they didn’t need any of those stomp boxes. They also didn’t need to play a zillion notes a minute to convey emotion, but that’s a whole separate discussion (!). So those phase shifters and chorus boxes are gathering dust in a box in my cellar.
Perhaps most used and abused device is the distortion box. Now, I know I’m an acoustic guitarist who has no practical use for those things anyway but most if not all electric guitarists you will hear at your local bar could not imagine playing without one. I also readily admit that long ago in my much younger days when I first began playing an electric guitar it was so, so cool to crank it up with plenty of distortion and flail away on “Smoke On The Water” and “Sunshine Of Your Love.” And I have the damaged hearing today to prove it! I just wonder how many younger players are confident enough to play without depending upon a distortion box to cover up any deficiencies in their playing? Harsh, yes. Sorry.
Wait a minute, Gene, you may be thinking. You’re talking about electric guitar technique and players. What about acoustics? Certainly some effects have value.
Some do, when used judiciously. A touch of reverb adds depth and if the reverb unit or on-board effect is of good quality it will not color your sound to the point of being noticeable. Some players add a bit of compression to even out the highs and lows but my experience has been that those devices, when doing what they are supposed to do, tend to make the sound have an artificial edge. It’s entirely possible that I just haven’t used a good one, though. Or perhaps I just am not adept at setting them correctly.
A good quality DI or pre-amp can be very useful in shaping your acoustic sound to account for variable environments, amps, PA systems (and the person controlling it!). I ALWAYS use a RedEye pre-amp with my K&K pick-ups in my acoustic/electric guitars. It allows me to tailor the sound subtly for the room I’m playing or even as the room fills with sound-absorbing bodies.
Many, many acoustic guitarists who perform regularly as singles use loopers and/or harmonizers. On one or two occasions I’ve heard a looper used to good effect (no pun intended), meaning they were used only occasionally and not on every single song. Yes, a looper can make your night go faster: recording a loop and noodling endlessly can turn a 3-minute song into a 10-minute song and your set listed doesn’t have to be as long. I guess I’ve heard too many guitarists playing every blues lick they know over a 12-bar blues loop to be very interested in those things. A longer and varied set list holds the audience much better. A short solo over a loop once in a while can still be interesting though.
I predict that harmonizers (used primarily with vocals) are a passing fad. One guy I know who is a recreational guitarist who goes out to clubs often told me recently that if he’s listening to a performer who suddenly is singing along with multiple singing clones of himself it is time to get up and leave. I’m not quite that severe about harmonizers; a duo or trio of singers who use a harmonizer can effectively beef up their vocals without the audience thinking – hey, wait a minute, where’s the other singer?! But in the long run I consider them a curiosity rather than a vital part of a performer’s pedal board.
Ah, peddle boards. With so many sonic toys available these days they seem to be a necessity for many performers. Putting aside the question of expense for all those boxes, I guess a performer has to ask him or herself: do those things REALLY add to my sound or are they just some new and fun toys? If the answer is yes, I think they sound great and I couldn’t imagine playing without them then God bless, go for it.
The big question all guitarists need to address is this. Is my playing good enough to not NEED devices? Because if the answer is yes, using devices and effects in a subtle way will enhance the listener’s experience. If the answer is no, practice will do more for you than any stomp box.
Peace & good music,
Categories: Acoustics

The Jitters

Thu, 09/07/2017 - 10:51
I go to great lengths to make my guitar lessons as low-stress as possible. It takes a few lessons for me to zone in on the personality of a new student but when I think I have their personality figured out I have plenty of techniques based on many decades of teaching that help them relax when it’s time to show me how well they’ve learned what I gave them in their last lesson. This works most of the time…. to a point!
Performance anxiety has probably been around as long as people have been playing music. It is a well-documented and discussed subject but I thought I’d offer a few hints and observations that may be of use.
First and foremost: EVERYONE gets nervous when they play in front of another person. I know I do, even after countless performances in front of audiences ranging from a few dozen semi-interested listeners to shows in front of many thousands. The trick is to channel that nervousness into something else. Because I can tell you from personal experience that the times I’ve performed and went out there totally at ease I probably screwed up faster than I should admit. Which then leads to a state of mind where I’m probably MORE nervous than I would have been otherwise!
So, what to do. Pre-show jitters are often counter-productive but incredibly common. Avoid slurping down that third cup of coffee before you perform. Shaky hands and a shaky voice aren’t easy to overcome when they’re caffeine-induced. Likewise, avoid mood altering substances, for the most part anyway. A glass of wine or a beer or two, fine. Other substances tend to make most people feel like they are sounding really good, when more often than not their playing is at the very least self-indulgent and at the worst, sloppy and ultimately disrespectful of a paying audience. Some players – Willy Nelson comes to mind – seem to have no problem with, shall we say, altered performances but in Willy’s case, there is a lifetime of practice doing it that way and his audience almost expects it. I once heard a story of the late, great folk blues legend Dave Van Ronk playing a concert here in town shortly before he passed away and the person assigned to host him was required (by Dave) to stop at the nearest liquor store and buy him a quart of whiskey, which he downed in short order before his show and did just fine. But these are the exceptions, friends.
Remember that audiences are a lot more forgiving than you might realize, especially older ones. When I was very young (high school age, perhaps a bit later too) I and my friends were very judgmental about bands of our peers. Our standard was – how much do they sound like the original artists? Fortunately, I matured enough and played out enough to realize that if a group sounded just like the original artist, they probably wouldn’t need to play for little ol’ me! Mature audiences take that into account, whether they’re conscious of it or not. They want you to succeed! And if you look like you’re having a good time playing, mistakes or a less than perfect performance doesn’t matter much at all.
Here’s a simple one. Don’t forget to breath. Sounds logical, right? But when we’re nervous it’s easy to be so focused on the music that our breathing is irregular. This causes something akin to panic in our brains, which ramps up the nervousness factor by a lot. If you’re a singer, a deep breath the instant before you sing a phrase will go a long way toward making you relax.
Think ahead as you play. I know that the worst performances I’ve given were due at least in part to putting my mind on autopilot and listening to myself rather than anticipating the next phrase or series of chord changes. This too will help you relax, based on the presumption and confidence that you know what will happen next. (And that’s why we spend time practicing, right?!?)
If you’re just getting into playing in front of audiences it sometimes helps to pick out a point in the back of the room to focus on rather than looking out at those expectant faces. This gets easier with experience of course, and making eye contact with listeners is always a good idea. But if you find yourself starting to choke when you see some local guitar hero watching you play or a very attractive member of the opposite sex is sitting there in the front row, shifting your focus point can help you calm down and deal with the task at hand.
Keep a bottle or glass of water close at hand. A nice deep swig of water between songs really helps eliminate the dry throat syndrome that goes along with heightened nervousness. It feels good, you will feel better and the next tune will go smoother.
And finally, accept your mistakes. It is a bummer to mess up a song but let the little man in the back of your head tell you that you WILL play it better next time. Don’t let a screw-up affect what comes after it. If your mistake is blaringly obvious, don’t be afraid to acknowledge it to your listeners with a laugh and a shrug. They will appreciate your honesty and keep rooting for you, I promise!
Peace & good music,
Categories: Acoustics

Live Music on the Cape, Summer 2017

Tue, 08/22/2017 - 08:37
I’ve heard plenty of live music this summer and made plenty myself. Here are some observations.
Starting at the top of heap, we had a fantastic time hearing the Taj Mo Band at the Cape Cod Melody Tent last Friday evening. What a great combination of talents! Keb’ Mo and Taj Mahal may be the best representatives we have of traditional blues. Backed by an ace band that included Taj’s two daughters on backing vocals, plus horns, keys, a great bass player and a drummer that was an absolute machine of rhythmic goodness they put on a show that was, for lack of better description, a celebration of the blues. We had second row seats and watching the grins that never left their faces was almost as much fun as the music itself. I heartily recommend their recent album too. Unfortunately, the years are catching up with Taj and he needed help getting on and off the stage but the years have in no way diminished his singing or his guitar chops. Keb’ demonstrated his prowess on resonator guitar and also electric lead, and oh man, that voice is pure smoke and honey. See them on this tour if you can, judging by Taj’s health it may be your only chance.
Then there is the local music scene. I’m pleased to report that there are more places than ever to hear live music on Cape Cod, which is a wonderful trend compared to a few years ago when DJ’s and karaoke seemed to rule the world. I’m seeing signs advertising live music at restaurants and bars that never have used live music before. My only conclusion must be that owners of those places have noticed the big crowds at places that have always had live music and they want in on the action. Plus there are more outdoor concerts in various towns than ever. Yeah!
Of course, the overall quality is variable, which is to be expected. I was reminded of the age-old truism of putting a back together that many groups seem to ignore: no matter how hot a player you are, no matter how well your group knows the tunes….. someone has to sing! I heard a local group in town at the Friday evening free concert series and they had an impressive line-up that included bass, drums, congas, sax, keys, and two (!) guitars. But unfortunately the vocals seemed to be an afterthought and weren’t very good, to say the least. I have to believe that with the popularity of TV shows like The Voice and karaoke sessions in many places there must be a good singer out there who could front this band. But so it has always been. Any group playing most any style of popular music has to understand that the audience for the most part doesn’t really care if you can play a Santana solo note-for-note, they want to hear good vocals.
On the other hand, I went to a GREAT afternoon of bluegrass at a local venue called Highfield Hall, a restored mansion with beautiful grounds. It was a free event, held each summer. There were two bands and both were excellent but my favorite was a bunch of young guys calling themselves The Lonely Heartstring Band. They played traditional bluegrass of course but also plenty of original material in the bluegrass style. All were superb players and their vocals were top notch. It turns out they were the National Bluegrass Association “Up and Coming Band of the Year” last year. I spoke to the young guitarist/leader at length between sets and he was very friendly and modest. They sold out Passim in Cambridge the next night, probably the most prestigious gig in the acoustic scene in New England. I bought their CD and have been listening to it a lot. Just a great band – search their name and check them out on their site. And see them if you can!
This was a truly wonderful family event held under a perfect summer sky with young and old enjoying themselves thoroughly. There were upwards of 500 in attendance and the only negative was the guy who is in charge of booking music at Highfield who featured himself the master of ceremonies and seemed to want to keep the attention of the audience on himself as much as on the music. I kind of felt like telling him to just shut up and sit down and I’ll bet I wasn’t the only one! Oh well, ego is a tough thing to battle I guess.
A couple of local bands I know are doing better than ever, gig-wise. Again, this is great to see. They have the right attitude: have fun, make good music with solid vocals, don’t fall into the trap of having aspirations of glory (unless they were willing to travel, which they are not). Just play it right, play it tight, and keep a smile on your face. The audience WILL respond.
Last night I went over to a popular bar/restaurant to hear one of them but unfortunately the online listing of entertainment at this place was not accurate and instead there was a young woman playing outside under a small tent. While she was enthusiastic, and in fairness I didn’t listen too long, I do wish women who bang away on guitars would just retire “Me & Bobby McGee.” Most guys I know who do singles have finally retired “Margaritville.” Is it too much to ask?! Sorry, cranky Gene comment there, ha!
Finally, I had a wonderful conversation with a guy who I introduced to guitar 40 (gulp!) years ago. Haven’t connected with him in decades. He was at that time my best guitar student and he has made a very fine career in music over the years, playing in rock bands, general business and other bands and most recently has begun playing in a couple of bluegrass bands, returning to his acoustic “roots.” He also has taught guitar right along and for the last few years has been a guitar and bass teacher at an exclusive and expensive private school. We reminisced about the old days and told war stories. I hope to hear him soon and even do some playing with him. I’m hoping to trade some bluegrass tunes for his jazz chops!
Peace & good music,
Categories: Acoustics

A Few Basic Truisms

Fri, 07/28/2017 - 09:50
Some basic truisms about playing the guitar, based on good and bad experiences teaching and performing for over 40 years:
There are almost unlimited ways to screw up a song! My dad, a superb musician who decided to take up guitar after he retired put that statement a bit more colorfully. And he wasn’t prone to cursing. I see it with my students on a regular basis. No matter how well you may know a song, no matter how many times you’ve played it, danger lurks. We can practice and practice and get it right almost all the time but don’t be surprised by those unexpected turns. My own feeling (based on plenty of screw-ups!) is that – assuming you know a song pretty well – the worst moments occur when I’m on “auto-pilot” and make the mistake of listening to myself play. “AW-right!” says the little man in my head. “Sounding good today, Gene!” Crash. And. Burn. Paying attention, thinking ahead, and most of all, not being rattled when something bad happens is the key. I readily admit this is never easy.
There will be times when you’re absolutely sure you play best in the first 10 minutes or so of a practice session but then things begin going downhill. This can be hugely frustrating. The reality is probably quite different than your perception. When we begin to play we often hear the best of our efforts and this is very satisfying, as it should be. But as our session moves along those little glitches become more and more annoying. With some people they can become downright debilitating, to the point that they put the guitar down and walk away in disgust and it may take days to recover. There are couple possible solutions here. First, no matter what, get through as much of a song as you can, warts and all. Then go back and focus on the section or individual changes that are problematic. After a few minutes of doing these, try to reassemble the song. Sure, those hard parts will still be hard but your perspective will probably change. Another solution is to just put the guitar down, go for a walk, read the newspaper or have an adult beverage if that’s appropriate. Clear the hard drive, in other words. Then pick it up and try it again. For what it’s worth, my students who progress the fastest often practice multiple times a day, if only for a few minutes each time.
You’re your own worst critic. Most recreational players have no intention of performing but if there is anyone within earshot it’s easy to assume they are listening intently and maybe being critical. I can assure you, in 99% of the cases no matter what your level of playing, no one is judging you. In fact, family and friends are your cheerleaders; they want you to succeed or at least be happy with your own playing. Listeners are way more forgiving of mistakes than you might realize. If you don’t believe me, go to a karaoke session some time. While you may hear some pretty amazing performances, you will surely hear some that belong in a person’s shower and nowhere else. But regardless, the listeners are enthusiastic and admire the performer’s courage.
But what bookends with this a bit is….
You can always tell when another guitar player is listening. The sideways glances or outright staring, usually with a blank expression. This can be disconcerting to say the least! It took me many years to not get rattled by this, I must admit. Finally, I figured out that all guitarists, regardless of their age, experience or musical tastes have some sort of innate need to demonstrate some level of coolness about other guitarists they don’t know personally. Why is this? I have no idea. Does it mean anything or matter? Not at all! That staring could have any number of underlying reasons. Some may be flattering; some may be ego-driven. I’ve had many instances when a guitarist stared at me for quite a long time, never clapped or even smiled at the end of multiple songs, but then came up (still without smiling????!) and said something to the effect of how much they enjoyed my playing and put a generous tip in the tip glass. A smile, a thank you very much and “glad you enjoyed it, hope to see you again!” are appropriate responses. On the other hand, I’ve seen guitarists I vaguely know show up at gigs and walk out with a smirk after a song or two. “Let it roll on by!” sings one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Shawn Mullins. It really and truly matters not what that person thinks. You’ve got the gig and he was just sitting there. That is all that truly matters.
Reserve judgement about performers, no matter what level they may be on. Here’s another case of Gene having to learn the hard way. In my younger days I routinely dismissed certain musicians based only upon my perception of their abilities, style of music, or even really silly things like their stage presence, equipment (!) or even their physical appearance. The result has been that I missed appreciating some very fine musicians. These days, even if I don’t particularly like a certain style of music I do my best to find value in it or at least try to figure out just why it or the people performing it are popular. Then I can make an informed decision as to whether or not to explore it further. And often, that’s just what happens and I think both my playing and my horizons have expanded.
Peace & good music,
Categories: Acoustics

You've gotten to be a habit with me....

Thu, 06/29/2017 - 09:35
For the last few years the vast majority of people who contact me for lessons are adults who have either been playing for some time (without formal lessons) or those who played some in their younger days and have the time, interest and income to commit to regular lessons. I do have a few youngsters of course but the approach with them is entirely different than with the adults.
Right off the bat I try to have them deal with what can only be described as bad habits. This can be a daunting task for some; a recreational player who’s been doing things a certain way for years or even decades has to be able to trust me enough to abandon those bad habits, even though in the short term their playing may be more difficult than the way they do it now. I am careful to explain exactly why it is that those habits need to be abandoned. Most understand but there are always a few that resist. Part of my job is adjusting both their expectations and my own based on that openness, or lack of. It can be a delicate dance!
So here are a couple things I see fairly frequently. I’ve mentioned them in past posts but this issue is so important to play successfully and satisfactorily that it is worth revisiting them. Whether someone is considering lessons with me or elsewhere these things must be addressed if one is to progress on the guitar.
Left hand (or right hand, if you’re a lefty) position. I’m not speaking of finger position on the frets, that is something I’ll focus on in a minute. Basically, we’re talking about how the neck is gripped. And therein lies the problem: you’re not supposed to “grip” the neck! This is the single most common bad habit I see with self-taught players. I call it the Baseball Bat Grip. Making contact with a large portion of the inside of the hand behind the neck, which usually leads to pointing the thumb toward the head of the guitar. This is counter-productive on so many levels! First, it is almost impossible to correctly arch the fingers and use just the finger tips to fret individual strings. When employing the Baseball Bat Grip, fingers on top of the neck almost always end up touching an adjacent string and the result is a muffled, dead tone, or no sound at all. In advanced guitar playing there are actually times when you want this to happen but not in the beginning. The Baseball Bat Grip also severely restricts fast, fluid movement.
The correct formation of hand position behind the neck requires dropping the forearm and wrist, bending wrist, and keeping the tip of the thumb parallel to the 2nd (ring) finger. Avoid any contact with the inside of the hand against the back of the neck if at all possible. The thumb is the contact point, not the inside of the hand.
Of course, everyone’s hands are different and guitar necks vary widely in width, depth and string spacing so accomplishing this requires some experimentation. In my experience, this can be one of those things that an experienced recreational, self-taught player will resist the most. Whether they realize it or not, their brain is telling them: I can use my old grip and get a decent sound from at least a few chords and oh my god, it is so AWKWARD to drop my wrist and forearm, bend my wrist and avoid contact with the inside of my hand against the neck! My thumb is just not strong enough to do the job back there! But I’m quite merciless about this with those types. While I’ve become a bit more lax about other things in the last few years relating to general technique, this one is not open to negotiation! And while it may take a few weeks, when the student hears and sees the results in terms of clean, clear tone and accurate movement between chords they often wonder out loud how they could ever have played ANYTHING the old way!
Interestingly, it is usually men who have the most trouble adjusting to this concept. Maybe it’s because men are used to more manual labor than women where the strength in their hands is more important than strength with their fingers so they naturally want to utilize that strength. Maybe women are just more flexible. Or smarter. Oops!
What’s going on under and behind the neck is not as obvious as what’s happening on top but finger placement is ultimately what it’s all about when it comes to clean playing, assuming you’ve accomplished the above. The most obvious bad habits I see are not arching the fingers enough and not pressing down hard enough but there’s another one that is almost as common: setting up too far away from the fret. Self-taught players almost always set up fingers at points about half way between the fret that is dividing the string and the one behind the finger. This is a natural presumption based on chord diagrams that are found in books and in diagrams online that always seem to show the “dot” representing the fingers at the halfway point between the frets. But here’s the thing. The fret is “playing” the note or notes for us, dividing the string at a very specific point. On non-fretted string instruments such as the violin and cello, the finger itself is dividing the string. On the guitar the frets do that work. And because of the way a fret protrudes above the fingerboard, the closer the fingertip it to that fret, the firmer the contact will be with the fret. In other words, more of the string is coming in contact with the fret. When this happens the string cannot move on top of the fret when the string is played. Movement – which you cannot see but can certainly hear – results in buzzes or muffled notes. So setting up as close to the frets as possible is a key element in clear, clean tone.
Unfortunately, with some chords this is just not physically possible with all the fingers; first position A Major is an example. There are a few generally used finger “orders” in A major but I subscribe to using 1st, 2nd, and 3rd fingers. YMMV, as they say. This is one of those things that I’ve grown more liberal about in recent years; it’s OK to try different combinations if my way does not work for you. The reason I use the fingers I do on that chord is that is encourages concise movement to chords often found after A Major. But again, it’s OK to experiment with that one.
If it is not possible to get one or more fingers close to the frets in a chord remember that you must press down extra hard to make firm contact with the fret. And sometimes setting up one finger too far from the fret will affect good placement of all the others. The single most common problem I see in this regard is 1st position C Major. If the 1st finger is not absolutely tight to the fret (without overlapping it of course, which you never want to do with any fingers anywhere) there is no way you will be able to stretch out the 3rd finger to the fret that plays C on the 3rd fret of the 5th string, and the result is muddy sound. This is so common amongst self-taught players that I can almost count on having to correct it at the very first lesson.
Those are just a couple of the bad habits I see time and time again. The good news is that they are reversible with some focus and effort. The result of dealing with them is a pleasing sound no matter how simple a piece of music may be. There are others….. But that, I hope, is why people come to me for lessons!
Peace & good music,

Categories: Acoustics