Simplifying focus in guitar study

Learning guitar can be a struggle at times for the aspiring picker. The process of playing guitar involves a kind of multi-tasking.  For the more advanced player this may not be evident, because so many of the tasks have become automatic.  On the other hand, the beginner constantly needs to be aware of many things. What fret am I playing on? Which string do I pick? What fingering am I using? What is the strum and what beat am I on?  If you add to all that reading music and/or keeping one’s place in a chord progression the amount of tasks can be daunting!

The professional player has a simpler job.  Much of the hard work has been done. All that remains is the task of making good music.  In order to get to this point the young guitarist has to work hard to coordinate these tasks. At times, things fall into place. At times, one can feel like one is juggling a bunch of balls. As one of my students succinctly put it, “There are so many things to think about!”

Simplify the focus

How do we keep all these things straight and still make music? As an example, let’s consider the act of reading music on the guitar. There is a tendency for the beginning player to turn this into a three-part process.  First, he looks at the music, then looks at his left hand to find the note.  Finally, he will check the right hand to make sure the pick is on the correct string.  This leads to a very stilted interpretation because of the constant change of focus. Indeed, the shifting focus further complicates what can be a simpler task.

One effective solution is to simplify the focus.  Keep the eye on the music page, and don’t even look at the hands.  At first, the player will make some fret or string mistakes, but eventually muscle memory will kick in.  As long as there are no position shifts, the left hand will make its choice based on the note on the page.  The right hand will eventually start to learn where the arm or wrist needs to be to pick the correct string.  Using the eyes on the instrument can sometimes be an impediment to internalization of the skill.  Just as the beginning bicyclist needs to get rid of the training wheels to learn to balance, the beginning guitarist needs to trust “feel” to develop the necessary muscle memory.

Taking the plunge

For those out there that don’t believe this is possible I can offer a case in point.  At one point I had a student who had a keen love for music.  He knew more classic rock songs than I did and was often introducing me to songs I wasn’t familiar with. He seemed to me to be very musical.  However, he was often struggling to form the chords in time to make the changes.  At first I thought that it was a problem with fine motor skills.  His fingers seemed clumsy and slow-moving, unsure of themselves, and often going to the wrong strings.

Incidentally, when this student started studying with me, he described himself as being AD-HD.  I thought that the intense concentration on his left hand was his way of dealing with that.  Indeed, he seemed focused, but his playing belied that.  He was getting frustrated, and I was puzzled.

Suddenly, I had a hunch.  I said, “Let’s try something different.  Try to focus on the chord chart instead of on your left hand.”  He told me he would never be able to play the chords correctly if he didn’t look at his hand.  I said, “Just try it.  Let’s see what happens.”  He tried it. He focused on the page and after a few stumbles was able to play the chords accurately and in time!

What happened?

So what happened there?  I think that while he was looking at his hands his mind was engaged in placing the fingers on the correct strings and frets.  For someone with attention deficit this can be confusing. It is likely that in his case the mind wasn’t working in an orderly fashion. I could sense that he was thinking too much, and the thoughts were getting confused and in the way.  When he allowed his intuition and muscle memory to kick in, the confusion was gone (or, at least, diminished). His hands were allowed to find their way on their own, without the obstacle of the brain.

I have tried this with many of my students, with similar results. Narrowing the focus can be an effective way of learning those automatic skills that playing an instrument requires.  For those that are having problems playing in time or making the chord changes, try simplifying your focus.  It might just work.


Ukulele: a port of entry to music and guitar

Ukulele Fever

Recently I have been taking on students who want to study ukulele.  About nine or ten years ago , I noticed that the ukulele was starting to get the attention of young people.  You would find it in pop tunes, such as Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister”. Pop artists, like Jack Johnson, were playing uke.  Some of my students were starting to play it in their spare time. And it was not unusual, while walking in the New York City streets, to see a young person with a uke on his or her back.

When I was a kid, guitar was the instrument to play. Everyone knew at least a few chords and, if you were even cooler, you could play the riff for “Day Tripper”.  At the time, nothing was more “uncool” than playing ukulele.  We associated it with Tiny Tim or “hula girls” from Hawaii. Why the sudden interest?

A Social Instrument

One of the attractions of the guitar is that it is a great social instrument.  My initial reason to start playing was to be able to take a more active part in the campfire hootenannies at my summer camp.  You can go to a friends house and bring your guitar and share your latest songs or discoveries on the instrument.  It was an instrument that initially was fairly easy to learn, once you get past the discomfort that goes with pushing down the strings.  One could play hundreds of songs with a few chords, and with a capo it was easy to play in any key.  Guitar in the 60s was the ultimate social and utilitarian instrument.

However, like all instruments, guitar has its challenges.  First of all, as I mentioned before, the discomfort. Until calluses form, holding down a steel string can be uncomfortable, especially for a very young person. Furthermore, when we play a chord, sometimes we need to hold down three or four strings simultaneously. This requires a certain amount of hand and finger strength. And then, there is the challenge of the “arch”. While playing a C chord, for instance, we have three fingers, that need to span three frets! This is a formidable task for the beginning player, especially a seven year old with small hands. Unless the player can arch the fingers correctly, half of the chord gets lost to blocked notes.  Needless to say, many give up before mastering those first four chords.

Advantages of Starting with a Ukulele

Here is where the ukulele can come in handy. First of all the strings are made of nylon polymer. This is much more forgiving to tender fingertips. And because of the small size of the neck, the strings lie closer to the fingerboard and are much easier to press down. Finally, because of the smaller fret size and the fact that there are only four strings, stretching and arching are not issues. The instrument is small, so it can easily be carried on the back or put in an airplane overhead. Finally, for about $60 one can get a pretty good instrument that will serve your purposes and sound fine. Even the barre chord, that frustrating bug bear of the aspiring guitarist, can be accomplished with not too much difficulty.

Many of my students who have started on uke have gone on to study guitar with me. They have found the transition easy, because ukulele has prepared them with the basics. For my younger, smaller students, it has been an attractive alternative to the half or three quarter size guitar. Likewise, elderly students, who may be experiencing stiffness or even arthritis in their hands, would find it a more comfortable instrument. Finally, I have students who have gone beyond strumming chords on the uke to playing melodies and even chord melodies. After all, Jake Shimabukuro has showed us melodic possibilities on the ukulele that we never would have imagined.

A Ukulele in Every Home

So whether it is an entry level introduction to fretted instruments and musical involvement or an end in itself, the ukulele has turned out to be an accessible and fun method of music making. And it is one which I hope will be around for many years to come. Perhaps someday we’ll live in a world where there will be a ukulele in every household!


The Four-Chord Song

Axis of Awesome

One of my teenage students once introduced me to a YouTube video about the “four-chord song”.  This was performed by a comedy-pop group called the “Axis of Awesome”. The premise was that you only need four chords to write a hit song. In fact, it is a requisite of a hit song that it only have four chords.  The group proceeds to do a medley of songs that use the same chord progression.

Harmony in Contemporary Song

As strange as it seems, this premise has much truth to it. In fact it has a much deeper significance in the state of our contemporary song. In my many years of teaching I have focused on the particular musical interests of my young students. As a result, I have gotten to know contemporary pop musical culture quite well.  There seemed to be a period where almost every song that students requested had the same three or four chords. This represents quite a dearth of harmonic material, especially when you are trying to expose your students to a variety of chords and harmonic situations, .  In order to actually teach some harmony I would often turn to the rich catalog of Beatles’ songs.

Why this lack of harmonic ideas or imagination?  This is especially strange when one realizes that not so long ago Lennon and McCartney were writing brilliant songs with varying degrees of harmonic complexity.  Some were very simple like “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?”. Others were very complex, “Martha My Dear”, for example.

The Struggle of the Young Songwriter

I started to get insight into this through my teaching, specifically with two students. Both were singer/songwriters.  Both of these girls were talented singers with a love for writing lyrics and songs.  Their songs were good.  However, they both complained of the same problem. No matter how hard they tried, how different the lyrics and melodies of the songs were, they found themselves writing the same chord progressions.

The bottom line is that we are products of our environments. If you listen to music with one chord, chances are you will write one-chord music.  If you listen to more complex harmonies, those harmonies will become part of your musical make-up. As a result, your ear will eventually hear many chord alternatives for a given situation.

Young singers and musicians of today listen to songs which have, for the most part, the same or similar progressions. The variation comes mainly in the lyrics or the arrangement. So when my young songwriting students put pen to paper they were trapped by their ear and habits into similar progressions.  This represents a kind of harmonic ‘comfort zone’, and unless we look elsewhere and challenge ourselves, we will stay in our comfort zones.

Are We in the 50s Again?

This lack of harmonic variety reminds me of the music I heard growing up as a child in the 1950s.  Almost every popular song had the same progression: I, VI, IV, V.  That is, if the song were in the key of G the chords would be G Em C D.  Furthermore, the tonality of the chords were almost always Major or Major 7th, much like the songs of today.  It was only through the influence of rhythm and blues artists like Little Richard and Fats Domino, and eventually Elvis and the Beatles, that this gradually changed.  The blues became part of our pop music, and provided a richness that moved the harmony forward.  Hopefully, we’ll see that change again.  As they say, everything goes in cycles.