Friday, January 22, 2010

How to Play Guitar

This template was created with a broad range of styles in mind, and aspects are applicable to other instruments.

The Blocks are not rigid, and progress may be nonlinear and variable in time.

Block 1:  Starting

Block 1 is for beginners, and players starting fresh in some particular way.

Click to enlarge either image.

I.  Anatomy

Get regular access to a guitar.  If the styles that interest you have no preferences, it doesn't much matter what you get, and similarly with striking mediums (try three):  nails, fingers, fists, jewelry, violin bows . . .

Get a tuner, then learn to tune some other way:  to another instrument, a song, yourself (find out if you have perfect pitch.)  Learn the names and functions of your instrument's parts -- see above, or more extensively.

Clip the nails on your fretting hand, and pay attention to hand positioning  and overall posture when you play -- it affects your music.  And long term, you can warp yourself if you're not careful.

Pick three songs you would like to learn, such as Wish You Were Here, Californication, and anything by the Ramones.  Or maybe a standard from three different styles.  If you want to attempt learning the guitar without considering other people's music, perhaps start with intervals, guitar layout, and phrasing (see forthcoming Block 2).

II.  Nonsense

Learn your tunes/elements, experimenting with striking mediums, volumes, and timbre ("tone", texture, "my sound, man . . .")  Intersperse your practice with finger exercises.   Try one finger per fret, on any combination of strings, pressing the tips of your fingers just behind the frets. Get a metronome, and jam to it -- subdivide pulses into pairs, threes, etc.   If you have started to learn intervals or phrasing approaches, turn them into excercises. 

A teacher might speed your progress, but as well may mire you in nonsense.  Other resources include people you know, sheet music, TABS, and instructional media.  Consider playing with other people, and recording yourself, as early as possible.

Here are nine examples of what is possible with a guitar.  Links were selected for reasons other than sound quality, so best assemble your own mix.

Andy Summers   Driven to Tears

I smile every time I hear this guitar solo, that something so horrid found it's way to commercial radio.  But the thing is (and this makes it really funny), it's a perfect solo, totally balanced in it's unbalanced-ness.

The "watery" guitars get that way from Mr. Summers' chord, rhythm, and timbre choices (including use of effects).

Jimi Hendrix  I Don't Live Today

Note use of wha, feedback, tremolo/whammy bar, and extra distortion (he steps on the pedal on at 1:11.)  Note also Mr. Hendrix's funkiness and natural connection to the instrument, as if it were another limb.

Steve Vai   For the Love of God

Take some vocabulary pioneered/developed by Hendrix, add some subsequent developments (such as Van Halen).  Apply discipline at the Shaolin level [scroll to 30-Hour Workout].  Emerge with a virtuoso, here presented in his element.

Ana Vidovic   Grande Sonata de Paganini (Allegro Risoluto)

IMHO a peak of performance technique and musicality.

Eddie Van Halen   Little Guitars

A different kind of performance technique and musicality, with some of the most memorable electric "rhythm guitar."

Don Felder, Glenn Frey, Bernie Leadon  One of These Nights

A lot of what is "night" about this track are the guitars, thickly toned and echoed, and the way they are arranged and mixed.  Felder's solo is tastefully fierce, playing a glinting version of the dark timbres.

Joe Pass  Satin Doll

Not as corny as it may appear.  This performance includes arranging on the fly, relative to a sketch of chords and melody, riding a rickety swing.

Andy McKee  Drifting   

I have no explanation . . .

Danny Gatton  Redneck Jazz Explosion


  1. Thanks you for the comment, but I can't read the non-English parts.

  2. No Zappa?

    I had to write a press release for Ana Vidovic a few months back -- she performed as part of the concert series at the studio where I teach. I didn't get to see the concert though.