Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Book snippet

So I'm working on a book about practicing. It's going pretty well. I'm hoping the book will help explain all the information I couldn't find when I started practicing and didn't really know what I was doing. Here's a little snippet that expands on a blog post I made a while back.

The Ego always gets in the way.

      Nestled on the southeast corner of St. Thomas was a small seaside bar and restaurant called Latitude 18. A boat landing dock was right up next to the tables and the lights of St. John could be seen shining across the channel. A warm breeze always blowing through the palm frond decorations and the waves splashing into shore helped to secure the tropical ambiance.
     I use the past tense because Latitude 18 is not there anymore. Bought and sold and developed I’m sure it’s a hotel resort now. Luckily it lives clearly in my memory. I had many memorable times at Latitude. It was where I played my first gig. I learned to jam and play music with other people at the weekly acoustic music jams held every Monday night. I heard some amazing musicians play everything from bluegrass to Led Zeppelin, all in this faraway corner of the world.
     The most memorable performance I saw there was a Dutch flamenco guitarist. Perhaps a strange combination but this guy was the real deal. He had went and lived among the gypsies to study the music of the Flamenco. His beautiful partner danced the flamenco and was locked perfectly in rhythm with the guitar’s vibrations. They were an incredible team. They gave the music everything they had.
A musician on holiday in the Caribbean might expect to end up playing a few songs if word got around they were good. Instead this couple had slipped into some kind of trance and they performed with an intensity that revealed a commitment to their art that was something very deep and respectful. I imagined myself wanting that same commitment.
     Their performance was stunning. I was only a few feet away from one the most amazing guitarists I had ever seen. His fingers flew across the strings with a speed and precision I still can’t imagine for myself. He was completely connected with his instrument. This was a master.
     I happened to catch this performance while I was suffering the injury I had inflicted on my left hand from my overly ambitious and ill conceived practice regimen. It had been several weeks since I had played and witnessing this performance only heightened my anxiety and worry about getting back on track and getting good at music. I could feel myself drawn to this guitarist. I needed to connect with him and hopefully glean some advice from him.
     After the show I wasted no time. Before the man even had a chance to put his guitar away, relax, and get a drink I swooped in, ready with questions. I can’t remember exactly what I said but I’m sure it was something along the lines of, “Hey there, I’m a guitarist too (ahem). I’ve been having trouble with my left hand. Do you have any advice?”
     Without a word he immediately snapped up my wrist and grabbed my fingers with his other hand. He shook my hand for a few seconds and then threw my arm back to me. He then coolly and directly stated, "It will be very difficult for you. The ego always gets in the way." This might have been one of the most terrifying things anyone had ever said to me.
     He might as well have said there was something wrong with my DNA. How was my ego in the way? I had been working so hard and wanted to play so bad. He then proceeded to show me how lightly he pressed down the strings and how you could slip a piece of paper under the strings and between the fretboard as he played because his touch was so light. He repeated it again. "It will be very difficult for you. The ego always gets in the way." I felt sort of crushed under the weight of the statement. Stunned I thanked him kindly and sat down feeling only more confused and maybe just a tiny bit insulted. This guy didn’t know me. How did he know if my ego was in the way? And in the way of what? It was all very mysterious.
     Staring blankly into my beer I had no idea how to make sense of what had just happened. I went home that night feeling a bit dazed by the whole experience. I felt like I was climbing an enormous mountain before but now it seemed like I was staring up at Mount Everest. Of course I guess I had hoped this guitarist would be nice, encouraging, and give me some kind of positive feedback that would allow me to catch a glimpse of what it takes to play really well.
     I see now that’s exactly what he did. As time has gone by I’ve realized those two sentences were the best music lesson I will ever have.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Blackberry Blossom (slow)

Blackberry Blossom parts A and B. Played Slow.

Cripple Creek (Basic version)

Here's is a basic version of Cripple Creek played slowly to help you figure it out.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Backup banjo roll patterns

Here are some roll patterns that you can apply to many different musical situations.

In order on the mp3.

  1. Forward roll on strings 1-3 for closed chords.
  2. Open position forward roll. Adds drive.
  3. Pinch pattern/alternating patterns
  4. C6 and C7 chord shapes rolls.

This track is long so you may need to scroll through to find the rolls your looking for. But you can always play it again to get the feel of the patterns.

Hope it helps.

Vamp patterns for Bluegrass Banjo

Here is a lesson focusing on Vamping patterns for Bluegrass Banjo. I cover several patterns starting with a basic vamp.

Foggy Mountain Breakdown lesson

Here's a slow version of Foggy Mountain Breakdown to help you learn it better.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

7 things you didn't know about music

  1. The 5 note pentatonic scale, (the scale that forms many of the classic patterns that guitarists use, see image) is a scale that has been around since ancient civilization. This scale is rooted in naturally occurring phenomenon and it helped societies develop a system to tune stringed instruments.
A 1st box
(pentatonic box patten used by guitarists the world over)

2. Perfect pitch is merely the ability to remember tones and isn't really useful to being a good musician. If you can think of a note in your mind and name that note with absolute certainty you have perfect pitch. The only use it might have to you as a musician would be the ability to tune your instrument without a tuning reference. Perfect pitch doesn't help with technique, music theory, composition skills, emotional quality of a performance, or the years of practice ALL great musicians endure to become good.

3. Vincent Galilei (Galileo's father) helped develop the system of Equal Temperament tuning that is used by most western musicians today. He didn't develop it first, that honor goes to Chinese scholar Chu Tsai-Yu. Galilei was behind him by a year but they both came to same solutions, independently.

4. Pythagoras (of triangular fame) tried to develop this same system about 2,000 years earlier. He failed. But, his ideas helped others develop the system we now use. Equal temperament tuning. If you don't know what this is read this:


This will likely make your head spin. All you need to know is that equal temperament is a way for us to play in twelve different keys. The system is a compromise. We have taken the tones that exist in nature and made them imperfect to fit our desire to compose in so many different keys. The mathematics involved are tricky to explain (not that I could anyway). If you play guitar you might want to study this topic more because it will help your ability to tune the thing.

5. Musical notes are repeating sounds waves. You get the strongest sound waves if they are created by an object that has a simple shape. One of the best shapes to produces vibrations is a column. Like a string. The strings that sound best are the ones with the most pure shape. This is why old strings don't sound as good as new ones. They won't hold their perfect shape.

6. The piano was invented in 1709 by Bartolomeo Cristofori.

7. In 1993 a test was done to see if avid vinyl/record enthusiasts could tell the difference between a CD and a record. Out of 160 people only 4 could identify the difference. Can you tell a difference or is it just nostalgia? Mp3's take music from CD's and eliminate 90% of unnecessary information (sounds that we can't hear with our ears, frequencies to high or to low). That's why we can stuff so much music on a little iPod. They've cut the fat so to speak. Some people swear that mp3's are a loss of sound quality. What do you think?

These little facts come from a book titled "How Music Works" by John Powell. A great read if you're a music nerd like me.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Going with the flow

Technique as defined by Merriam-Webster:

: the manner in which technical details are treated (as by a writer) or basic physical movements are used (as by a dancer)

Therefore musical technique could be simply defined as: the basic physical movements used to play an instrument. As you may have quickly figured out, there is nothing basic about playing a musical instrument. Not well anyway. How do people make it look so easy? People like this:

That's Celso Machado. He is a musical genius. No doubt. Much to be learned from this one. Notice how relaxed he is with the instrument. His movements flow and there's no wasted movement.

We can safely say that Celso Machado is a master of guitar technique. Again nothing basic here. Or is there?

Consider, technique is the basic physical movements to play an instrument and guitar master Celso Machado's technique is to play with flowing moves and minimum waste. So should you.

If you are serious enough about your playing to ever consider your technique and how you might improve explore these tips.

  • Listen to your body
Eventually you are going to need to pay closer attention to your body. It will tell you what you need to do. For years I played with my pinky and ring finger touching the top of the guitar while I was flatpicking. As I tried to build speed (and failed to build speed) I realized that I needed to lift my "anchor" fingers. It felt more natural. This was a bit upsetting. For years I had worked on my technique with the fingers "anchored." Lifting them up felt like it would be faster but I didn't feel as accurate. After trying both methods I decided to leave behind the old technique and adopt the new. At first I took a few steps back but eventually I broke through to new levels of playing and I continue to improve. All because I listened to the signals my body sent me.

Go with what feels natural and flows the best. Experiment and don't be afraid to change things up if it feels right.

  • Practice with grace/ play with grace
If you hope to play with a fluid technique you need to strive to play that way every time you pick up the instrument. Go slow (very important!) and work through moves with your best efforts at making things feel as easy as they can. Any time I start to fuss and fight with a passage I take that as a signal to slow down and try to find a way to make it feel easy. You can't overcome these problems with muscle.

  • Don't worry about speed
Always strive to sound as good as you can. Don't strive to play as fast as you can. Speed gets old anyway. Besides, playing slow can be just as difficult as playing fast. Even more so sometimes. When you hit a dud it really sticks out...

Hope it helps

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The missing piece

I've been working on playing longer and more difficult pieces of music in last year or so. As my technique has improved so has my desire to play songs that always seemed out of my reach. Also, It seems much of what I write is often harder than what I can play. Maybe that's a good thing. In practice, I've bumped into many walls that seemed like I may never get over. I've got over some of those humps but it has sure taken a while to get there. Looking back I realize I made quite a few mistakes along the way and could have got better sooner with different approach. Oh well. That's what this blog is for, to help you learn from my mistakes. So dig this.

Any given piece of music is going to have parts that are harder than others. Maybe you're having trouble with just a couple of short parts that you can't seem to get right. To play those parts you will have to improve. Can you? Or do you just keep running up against the wall. Sometimes the solution involves finding a missing piece. A new way of looking at playing the song. If you're stumbling over one or two parts (the hardest parts maybe) of a song run through this checklist.

  • Are your fingerings the best they could be?
Go back over your fingerings. Are they the most efficient? Do you have them memorized? These points are crucial. Before you hope to play anything you've got to get your fingerings down.

  • Have looked at the problem in a new way?
If your fingerings are okay you should look for new solutions. Perhaps you're carrying tension in that part of the song and you need to slow it down a bit. Sometimes the solution could be a slight change in the position of your hand or arm. Maybe you need to place a little more emphasis on a particular move to get it right. Look closer at the details of what you are doing and you'll see possibilities you didn't know were there.

  • Everybody makes mistakes
I've seen some incredible musicians make mistakes. All of them. The harder a piece is to play the greater the likelihood of a mistake. How bad do you need to play it perfectly? If the answer is real bad, then you need to solve the missing piece. This is the final link in the chain. Without it the music could stumble. But then, everybody makes mistakes.

Finding the missing piece is often a matter of persistence. You look at something for long enough and you'll start to see things you missed before. As the Jazz/Bluegrass banjo player Pat Cloud once told me at a workshop, "Practice trumps all."
Hope it helps.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The benefits of playing slow

I have been rock climbing an awful lot this summer. Not as much as I'd like to but maybe a little more than usual. Did a great climb in Leavenworth this past weekend and my hands are a bit punished. Here's a photo I borrowed of the wall. It's the gray rock in the center of the photo. It's about 600-800ft tall depending on who you ask.

I tried practicing the day after but my fingers hardly worked at all. After another day of rest I was able to get back to picking again. My latest is goal is a bit of an ambitious undertaking. I've been working on Bach's Partita #3 for Solo Violin. Classical guitarists have been playing it a while and a few of the big dog bluegrass folks like Chris Thile, Bela Fleck, and Mike Marshall have performed it. It is an incredible piece of music. Of course it's hundreds of notes but Bach doesn't waste any on this one. Here's a video of John Williams slaying it.


Aside from my slow sight reading skills which create a challenge all it's own, I'm realizing that pulling this thing together is going to require advancing my ability to practice. So here are a few things I've noticed.

  • Slow is fast
There are so many new movements that have to be mastered, (Just like any beginner would encounter) the best way to get them memorized is to play through things slowly. Real slow. Often times I'll just work on a couple of especially difficult moves. It's amazing how much faster the muscle memory starts to set in if I take extra time to really know where my fingers are supposed to go. Once I've thought it through, then I can start the process of repetition playing and the fingers will start to go where they need to on their own. I find that taking extra time is important. As soon as I'm speeding things up, I'm messing up.

  • The metronome is your best friend
You may think that you're playing slow enough but I bet you're not. Try this for slow.

  1. Set the metronome on 60bpm. Work on a short passage. 2-3 measures or so.
  2. Play one note on the click.
  3. Let three clicks go by before you play another note. (This allows you to relax, make sure you're not tensing up, and gives you time to think about your next note.)
  4. Play the next note on the click. Continue through with your chosen passage with three rest notes. How many mistakes did you make? If you're making mistakes now, you will later. Better to fix these problems before you speed up.
  5. Did you play it with little or no mistakes? Speed it up. Now to 100bpm, but continue with the three rest notes.
  6. Keep working up through the tempos until you are playing your passage at 60 bpm with one note per click. At this point I bet your fingers know where to go. Now you're ready to really build muscle memory with repetition practice. Slowly still.
  7. I promise you'll be amazed at how much more solid your fingers remember where to go, slow is fast.
  • Speed is last thing you should worry about.
Easy to say, hard to let the ego get out of the way. More to the point though, if you start speeding things up before you're ready, you have no hope of playing the music clean. There's just no way. Speed should be brought up slowly.

If you're playing a piece slowly and want to start getting faster ask yourself a couple of questions.

  1. How many mistakes am I making at a slow speed?
  2. How easy does it feel?
I'll let you answer these questions. If you feel good about the answers then you're ready to put some speed on it.

Perhaps you're getting the point. Try playing slow. You'll be surprised how much better you'll play.
Hope it helps.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

New Classes at Dusty Strings starting next week

Starting next Thursday September 9th I'm teaching two new classes. These classes meet every Thursday for 4 weeks. The banjo class starts at 6:30pm and the guitar class starts at 7:45pm.

Beginning Bluegrass Banjo:

This class will get anyone started with the fundamentals of bluegrass banjo playing. Start by learning the basic rolls that give bluegrass its signature sound, and use those rolls in two classic banjo tunes. The class will also address issues such as holding the banjo, muscle tension, and hand position.

Beginning Bluegrass Rhythm Guitar:

Examine the basics of bluegrass guitar back-up, starting with the “boom-chuck” strum technique. Then, add a few bass runs to the mix, including the enduring “G run” that helps give bluegrass its signature sound. How do you use a capo? We’ll cover that too. Along the way we’ll improve your timing by learning to use our friend the metronome. Geared
towards guitarists with some experience who are comfortable with basic chord changes.

Maybe I'll see you there.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The 15 minute practice session

I say you can practice effectively if you commit to only 15 minutes each day. Will you become a virtuoso? No. Can you get better? Yes. If you don't know how to practice try this.

  • Commit yourself to 15 minutes of focused practice 5 days a week. 7 would be better but 5 will do for now.
  • Set very specific goals for your practices
  1. What do you hope to get better at? A certain song. A specific technique. Both. Maybe your left hand needs work. Maybe the right hand. Whatever it is, choose one thing and go after it to the exclusion of most other things. Remember this is for the 15 min. practice session. If you can find more time you can go over more things.
  • Warm-up
  1. Spend 3-4 minutes warming up with scales, arpeggios, and other fingering exercises. If you don't know your basic scales or arpeggios maybe you should spend the whole practice on scales for a few weeks and get those to a point where you don't have to think about the fingering patterns to much. The goal here is to slowly warm up with good muscle memory in the fingers. If you're a rhythm guitarist you could spend a few minutes practicing basic strumming patterns with a metronome.
  • Work on your main goal
  1. Again this could be anything. A song. A technique. Learning to tune your instrument. Chords. Scales. Speed. Tone. Dynamics. Whatever your goal is go after it. Most importantly go SLOW!
  2. The 15 minute practice session is all about QUALITY. Forget about playing things fast. Or doing anything quickly. You want to make sure that you are doing things right. Play through your piece slowly making sure everything is working smoothly.
  3. Don't move on to another goal until you've improved. This could take a while but after a couple of weeks of playing the same song or scale you'll be amazed at how much better you've become at that.
  4. Now you can move on to another goal. A new song. Playing that song faster. Whatever. Maybe you can use your newly improved song as a warm up if you play it slowly enough.
  • If you're not seeing improvement after a couple of weeks:
  1. There could be a few reasons. Most likely you're trying to play it to fast. You also might not know where your fingers go. This is very important. I've already written about this here: http://chummersmusic.blogspot.com/2009/09/strategies-for-practicing-effectively.html Maybe you just need to spend more time with the problem. Try it for few more weeks. See how it is after that.
Hope it helps.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Basic Music Theory (Keys)

I recently had a student ask what it means when you say things like "it's in the key of G" or "it's in the key of B Flat" or other such music terminology. I'll try to explain.

The first thing about this business of KEYS is related to the major scale. You need to understand it first. I've already covered this topic a few posts back. You can link to it here:


So hopefully now you understand that there's this collection of tones called the major scale. It might help to listen to it a few times to get really acquainted with it. Now let's look at the KEY of C Major.

Imagine that a musical key is like a little Solar System and C is the sun. All the chords in the key of C revolve around it like planets around the sun. The C Major chord is the center of this little universe. A childish comparison perhaps but I think it's apt. Check this out.

Here are the notes and chords in the key of C Major.

  • CEG = C Major Chord
  • DFA = d Minor Chord
  • EGB = e Minor Chord
  • FAC = F Major Chord
  • GBD = G Major Chord
  • ACE = a Minor chord
  • BDF = B diminished chord
Hopefully you can see the logic behind the notes of the scale. They're somewhat alphabetical:

C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C

Remember that there's only 7 tones in the major scale, it starts over again at the next C. That tonal "distance" is called an Octave for 8 (of course.)

Now that we know the tones we can assign a placement for each of the tones, numerically. In the context of KEY the letter C can refer to both the individual note C as well as the the 3 note family CEG that refers to the C major chord. Technically speaking it is often called the root note or Tonic with the F being the Subdominant and the G being the Dominant.

Don't worry to much about that though. Here's the list:

  • C = 1 (root)
  • D = 2
  • E = 3
  • F = 4 (sub dominant)
  • G = 5 (dominant)
  • A = 6 (relative minor)
  • B = 7
From now on when you refer to a C chord (in the key of C ) you can refer to it as the 1 chord. And the F chord as the 4 chord, and the G chord as the 5 chord. It's often written as Roman numerals but for now I'll stick with regular numbers. These three chords hold a very important musical relationship. Literally millions of songs have been written using just these 3 chords. Great songs. I don't mean C, F, and G. I mean the 1, 4, and 5 chords. That relationship is the same for any key. Here's a great link for a list of songs you might know using the 1, 4, and 5 chords of a given key.


So, just as we can create a major scale in the Key of G. We can assign the number value and tonal placement for the Key of G.

  • G = 1
  • A = 2
  • B = 3
  • C = 4
  • D = 5
  • E = 6
  • F# = 7
The 1, 4, 5 chords are G, C, D.

The key is what gives a song a tonal center (or lack of) and helps the musician understand the relationship of the the tones within that key. In in my next post I'll go into some more detail about these relationships.

Hope it helps.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Basic Music Theory (Chords)

Where do chords come from? This is the topic I'm going to cover today. It's not as difficult as it seems. To get to the bottom of chords we need to get back together with our friend the major scale. I'll pick things back up with the C Major Scale. C, d, e, F, G, a, B, C. The capitol letters indicate a major chord. The lower case letters indicate a minor chord.

I go over the major scale and how it's formed in the previous post and in a couple of videos:


  1. C maj
  2. d min
  3. e min
  4. F maj
  5. G maj
  6. a min
  7. B diminished
So, how do we get chords out of this scale. It's simple. You take 3 notes, starting on any note, and group together every other note. I'll say that again. Pick a note, take every other note, and combine 3 notes. Here's an easy way to look at it.

To make a C Major chord you take the C, the E, and the G and play them at the same time.
To make a d Minor chord you take the D, the F, and the A and play them at the same time.

  • CEG = C Major Chord
  • DFA = d Minor Chord
So you get the family of chords that are generated from the C Major Scale, you just keep applying this formula to every note of the C Major Scale. Here's what you get. By the way, this is called Harmonizing the Scale.

  • EGB = e Minor Chord
  • FAC = F Major Chord
  • GBD = G Major Chord
  • ACE = a Minor chord
  • BDF = B diminished chord

This formula works for any major you scale you'd like. Here's the G Major Scale.

G, A, B, C, D, E, F# (the only "accidental" in G Major)

  • GBD = G Major
  • ACE = a minor
  • BDF = b minor
  • CEG = C Major
  • DF#A= D Major
  • EGB = e minor
  • F#AC= F Diminished
If you play these chords one after the other you can hear the scale in the chords. I play the C Major scale chords this way at the start of this video:


Hopefully, you can hear the major scale in there.

That's quite a bit of info. If you find it confusing feel free to send me any questions and I'd be happy to help you understand this stuff better.
Hope it helps.