Guitar Adventures Part 2 (Notes on Learning)

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

My guitar adventures continue. It’s now been nine months since I began and have a few tunes, chords, and scales under my belt. As with anything worth learning, I’ve had to do research and reading on the instrument and music in an attempt to understand the big question “Why.”

Firstly, the guitar is such a physically demanding object. It’s not heavy, but it demands that the whole body be engaged to hold, cradle, and play. In addition, the instrument physically changes the player. The first few months of practice is difficult because the strings of an acoustic guitar require calluses on all four digits of the left hand (right for left handers). The strings are also difficult to press down. The player must then develop physical strength in the fingers, wrist, and thumb. The physical strength has to be accompanied by precision or fine manipulation of the strings. I came to this thinking that all I would need was to play notes and chords, but certain chords, such as A7, require the avoidance of a middle string as well as other strings that should not be played or the A7 chord might become an E. After a time, the calluses, strength, and precision develop but at first even the C major chord seemed impossible, let alone moving from C major to F and then to the multitude of G chords.

The last physical problem to overcome was the ability to stretch the fingers over four or five frets on the board with a certain degree of comfort, while the thumb remains fixed behind the guitar neck, and to do so with speed, which involves strength and flexibility. I don’t have the largest of hands, but the B chord illustrates the problem. The first finger must depress all of the first five strings on the second fret, which is the F# fret. The second, third and fourth strings must be depressed on the G# fret or fourth fret by the remaining fingers, including the pinky.

The instrument also alters the brain. It’s simple enough make the C shape and then to strum with the right hand. After a few months I was able to go quickly from C to F and then to G or something else and strum this progression to a strict beat. But the fingers of the right hand also have to pluck according to patterns, which often involve plucking a string with the pointing finger and the next string with the ring finger, assuming that the left hand has also depressed the string corresponding to the pluck (unless the player is plucking an open string). But then the question is “Where do I look? At my right hand or my left hand?” Guitarists must do as pianists do: train their brains to work both hands in codependence. I still find this immensely difficult as my brain has forty four years of training not to work this way, as in typing, where one letter is made after the first. Nobody types simultaneous letters on a keyboard. Remember the trick where one hand pats the head while the other circles the heart?

The other issue here is with fingernails. I’ve grown the nails of my right hand as I’ve chosen to learn music where plucking is the principle means of making noise. The nails aren’t enormous but they would be long enough to paint. So, the left fingers are calloused at the tips and the rights are long-nailed, but I persistently break my pointing finger’s nail (because that’s the finger I use make holes in my walls, apparently), which makes for strange sounding plucks with that finger.

Secondly, the fret board of the instrument (and sound in general) is bizarre. This problem has to do with the intervals between the Major notes, say from A to B or G to A and how these intervals translate onto the machine. The open string of the guitar’s first string is E. The first fret is F and the third fret is G. But where’s A on the first string if one wants to go from E to F to G to A and then to B. This required study, as all Major (7 tones) and Minor (5) tones can be played on every string. The open 3rd string of the guitar is G but A happens on fret 2, so A is two frets up from G on the first string. This was my first big “Why” question, which required a few books for assistance, one of which is Kadmon’s Guitar Grimoire, which is about as serious a book on scales and modes as I could find. With it’s help I was able to learn tone intervals and how to visualize them on the fretboard. But Kadmon has also confirmed the notion that this is all bizarre.

John Timmons has helped a lot and I’ll continue to pester him (he was also kind enough to provide me an instrument that’s a little easier on the hands, which was an amazing gift), and with these books I can persist without too much guess work.

So, at this point I have a few songs, a few chords, and some chord progressions to work on. I’m in a constant state of relearning. But I don’t play the songs all that well and my brain is still fighting me because of this relearning. In Taoism, our relationship to nature is a significant issue (this was Keats’s problem with birds and their ease with songmaking). In this mode of thinking about things, being able to do something “without thinking” is a principle goal. After lots of hard practice, we learn to walk pretty much without having to thinking about it. One measure of human transition has to do with becoming aware of what was once hidden behind the wall of habit and expectation. Purposeful learning should, therefore, tend toward disawareness. Language acquisition is similar. My goal, therefore, is to practice enough so that play happens “naturally.” At the moment, I’m far from this “state of being.”


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