Keeping hands and fingers healthy

We often take the use of our hands for granted – until something happens that makes us unable to keep doing what we usually do! As guitarists, we are highly dependent on our hands for our ability to play our instrument, and since so much depends on our hands, we should know how to keep them healthy so that we can have a long and satisfying playing career.

The following resources from the British Association of Performing Arts Medicine are very helpful for all styles of guitarists. They have put together a set of stretches and exercises for use as a warm up before practicing, and as a warm down after practicing. They have also published some guidelines for hand and general health for instrumental musicians. There is also a very good fact sheet on ergonomics for acoustic guitar players.

The fact sheets can be accessed from the BAPAM Health Resources Page, or directly from the links above!

So educate yourself on looking after your critical resources as a guitar player. A great way to start is the links above.


The Value of Theory

A lot of guitarists don’t want to learn about music theory. I have always taken a different view. Music theory helps you to talk about music, and to understand how music works. Why wouldn’t any musician want to learn as much as they can about it! It helps to learn the right kind of theory, that can help with the music that you like to play. But there are basics that apply to all music, at least modern popular music, and theory can help you be a better, more creative player. Here’s an example. The other day I was rehearsing with some musicians for a recording session. The aim was to record some songs for an educational program for immigrants. In one song, there was a three part harmony section which just wasn’t sounding right. Four of us were standing around, suggesting one thing and then another, and it still just wasn’t working.

As I wasn’t doing any singing, I was just sitting back, waiting for the vocalists to get themselves organised, when I started thinking about the theory of what they were doing. The progression was G minor to A7, then resolving to a D minor. Turned out the melody line went to an E on the Gm, making it a G minor 6th. The harmony lines just weren’t working, no matter what permutation of G minor was tried.

Theory knowledge kicked in. A G minor 6th has the same notes as an E minor 7th flat 5. The progression becomes a minor ii-V-I progression, a very strong sounding progression. If the voices harmonise an Em7b5 chord, maybe it will sound OK, I thought, and bring out the strong harmonic movement of the ii-V-I. This plan was suggested, duly tried, and bingo, problem solved! A strong vocal harmony while the band comped over the original Gm-A7-Dm progression.

A bit of theory can work the same way for you – and make you a better musician, and a better musical problem solver.


Mental Practice

We seem to be living in an increasingly busy world, and I am often hearing my students tell me that they simply are too busy to practice every day. Practice works best on a daily basis – even a small amount each day, as little as five minutes, works better for you than a big instalment once or twice a week. You will really start to see progress if you can get your daily practice schedule happening.

Given the nature of our busy world, this can be a challenge. However doing some mental practice can help you get the benefits of daily practice, utilising time that you would otherwise be unable to use for the guitar – such as sitting on the bus or train, or lunchtime at work, and various other little snippets of time that you can snatch for yourself, but which don’t lend themselves to picking up your guitar.

Basically, you simply imagine yourself doing your practice, in complete detail. You visualise which finger moves on to which fret, you visualise your pick or plucking fingers moving in the correct fashion, you mentally hear the note ringing.

Studies have found that this kind of mental practice works almost as well for sports skills, such as shooting basketball, as the actual physical practice. It will work for your music as well. I believe it is especially good for practicing your reading skills, which as a task has a high proportion of mental processing involved.

Begin your mental practice with pieces you already know reasonably well, and when you get the hang of it, extend yourself to practicing new pieces. Just for fun, use your mental practice to prepare a new piece, and then after a week, see if you can play it on your guitar. To be effective, use your mental practice on pieces which are at your current playing ability, or which extend it slightly – in other words the same pieces you would be playing on your guitar. You can also apply this technique to learning scales and arpeggios – whenever you have a spare moment, just run through a scale or arpeggio in your head – visualising the sound of the notes, the movement of each finger, the positions of the frets, and the movement of the pick. It doesn’t matter if you need to do it slowly at first – what matters is visualising as completely as possible.

So get cracking! Take a few sheets of music with you on the bus, and use the time to mentally practice them. I am sure you will be pleasantly surprised by how much it helps you, especially if you can establish a daily routine with it to augment your physical practice routine!



How to tune the guitar

So you’ve just got your guitar, and you’ve had your first lesson, but somehow the notes seem funny. You’re guitar has probably gone out of tune! Guitars will need tuning each time you play them! So how do you tune the guitar?

There are three main methods. You can tune using an electronic tuner, you can tune to a piano or keyboard, or you can tune one string to a reference pitch (such as a tuning fork), and tune the rest of the strings to it. The easiest method is to use an electronic guitar tuner. So we will look at that first.

Tuning with an electronic tuner
Electronic tuners which can be used for guitar come in two varieties – guitar tuners, or chromatic tuners. Guitar tuners have a setting which when activated means the tuner looks for the specific sound of one of the six strings of the guitar. These tuners may also have a setting for bass or violin, so make sure you set it to guitar! When you play a string, the tuner will match it to the closest guitar string, and tell you whether it is sharp (too high in pitch) or flat (too low in pitch). If the guitar is way out of tune, the tuner might think you are tuning a different string, so look on the screen for an indication of the string, and make sure it matches the string you are tuning. Then turn the tuning peg to make the pitch sharper or flatter as needed to centre the needle or light on the display. Then do the same for the other strings!

It helps to know the names of the strings so you can check that the tuner has picked out the right note to tune to! The thickest lowest sounding string is E, also called the 6th string. Next in pitch is the A or 5th string, then the D (4th), G(3rd), B(2nd) and finally highest in pitch the top E (1st) string. Note that there are two E strings, a low one, and a high one!

A mnemonic to remember the names of the strings (lowest to highest in pitch) is the sentence: Every Australian Dog Gets Beef Everyday. The letter begginning each word is the name of the strings in order from lowest to highest in pitch.

Chromatic tuners are a little bit harder for beginners to use, but once you know the names of the strings, they are just as easy as the others. Chromatic tuners tune to the closest note to the one sounding, whether it’s the proper note for the string or not. So if you are not careful, you could find yourself tuning your string to a C# or a Gb, and then wondering why your guitar still sounds very out of tune! The trick is to make sure you are tuning to the right note for each string. If you are tuning the G string, for example, and the tuner registers F or Gb (G flat), then you must sharpen the note (make the pitch higher) until the tuner registers a G, and then continue to tune until you centre the needle or light on the display. Use the mnemonic above if you can’t remember the names of all the strings!

Many tuners have different modes, and can operate in guitar mode, chromatic mode, or bass or violin mode – so make sure your tuner is in guitar or chromatic mode! Other problems can occur if you inadvertently change the reference frequency. Pianos and keyboards and most orchestral and band instruments are tuned to a reference frequency of 440 Hz for the pitch of A. Most tuners allow you to change this reference frequency up or down, and if this happens you will be out of tune with records, radio, pianos, keyboards etc! Make sure that the numbers 440 appear on the display, and not 445 or 436 etc! Tuners often allow you to tune flat by one or more semitones. This is often indicated by one or more flat symbols, which look a little like a script lower case ‘b’, in the display. Make sure there are no flat symbols showing when you tune your guitar, otherwise you will be out of tune with other instruments! (Though you will be in tune with yourself!)

Tuning to a piano or keyboard
Just play the note on the keyboard that corresponds to the string of the guitar, and adjust the tuning peg until the two notes sound the same. Listen for the two notes beating against each other, making a “wah wah wah” sound. This should get slower and slower until it disappears when the two notes are in tune. If you don’t know the names of the notes on the piano keyboard, use the picture below!

Tuning with a tuning fork or other reference pitch

If you have a tuning fork for A 440, tap the tuning fork on your knee, and hold the stem of the tuning fork to the body of the guitar, where you won’t damage the finish. This will make the sound of the tuning fork much more audible. Then play the A string and tune until the pitches match. Once again listen for the beat between the out of tune notes, which sounds like “wah wah wah”, and adjust the tuning peg so this beat slows down and disappears. This is easier if you play the harmonic on the 12th fret of the A string, as the tuning fork sounds an octave higher than the string.

When the A string is tuned, tune the other strings to the A string, using the following diagram:

(1) Place finger on the 5th fret of the bottom E string. Turn the tuning Peg of the bottom E string until the pitch matches that of the A string which you just tuned to the reference pitch. Listen for the “Wah Wah Wah” of the beats getting slower and slower until they stop when the two notes are in tune.

(2) Place finger on the 5th fret of the A string, which gives you a D. Turn the tuning peg of the D string until the two notes match.

(3) Place finger on the 5th fret of the D string, which gives you a G. Turn the tuning peg of the G string until the two notes match.

(4) Place finger on the 4th fret of the G string, which gives you a B. Turn the tuning peg of the B string until the two notes match.

(5) Place finger on the 5th fret of the B string, which gives you an E. Turn the tuning peg of the high E string until the two notes match.

Your guitar should now be in tune. Strum a chord, such as a G major, C major or E major. If they don’t sound right, you will need to repeat the process again, taking more care to match the notes. As this is a skill that requires practice to get right, keep persevering, and ask your teacher or a friend who plays to help you tune up. If your guitar doesn’t tune up properly, even for your teacher or an experienced player, you might need new strings. If new strings don’t help, you might need a set-up on your guitar from a luthier (ask at your local music shop), to adjust the intonation. If you have a cheap guitar, it is probably time to get a better, more expensive model!

Tuning with harmonics

Harmonics are bell like tones produced when a finger on the left hand lightly touches the string without exerting any downward pressure, at an exact location (e.g. above the 12th fret), while the string is plucked. To sound a harmonic, lightly rest your finger on the bottom E string exactly above the 12th fret, without pressing down as you normally would. Pluck the string, and immediately remove your finger. A note an octave higher than the open string should sound. Harmonics can also be found at the 7th fret, and the 5th fret, and many other positions on the neck.

To tune using harmonics, first adjust the A string using a pitch reference such as a tuning fork.

(1) Sound the harmonic on the 5th fret of the bottom E string, and at the same time sound the harmonic on the 7th fret of the A string. Adjust the tuning peg on the bottom E string until the two notes are the same. As above, you will hear the beating of the notes (the wah wah wah sound) slow down and stop when the strings are in tune.

(2) Repeat with the harmonic on the 5th fret of the A string and the 7th fret of the D string, tuning the D string until the harmonics stop beating.

(3) Repeat with the harmonic on the 5th fret of the D string and the 7th fret of the G string, tuning the G string until the harmonics stop beating.

(4) Sound the harmonic on the 7th fret of the bottom E string, and the open B string. Tune the B string until the notes stop beating.

(5) Sound the harmonic on the 7th fret of the A string, and the open top E string. Tune the top E string until the notes stop beating.

Your guitar should now be in tune!

It may take you several attempts to get your guitar in tune, but persevere. It is a skill that improves with practice!

C major practice track

Here is a simple practice track for practicing improvising in a C major scale. The chords are

|G               |Am               |Bm7b5              |C                 : ||

It is suitable for any player who can play the C major scale! When you are playing, see if you can listen to each note, and pick out notes which go with the chords.

C major practice track: V-vi-vii-I

Playing the guitar is about making the most of what skills and techniques you have, being musical with the things that you CAN do. Don’t worry about things you can’t do – just focus on what you can do, and be as musical as you can. The more you play, the range of things you can do increases – especially if you have a good regular practice routine.

As an example, here is a melody part for the same progression played entirely in first position, using only one octave from the G string up to G on the top E string:

C major practice track with lead (melody):

So be as musical as you can with the skills and technique you have. It is a good habit that will strengthen your playing as you continue to improve your technique and skill level. And don’t forget to have fun!


Keep It Simple

Something I like to tell my students is that good music comes from a place of simplicity. If you are struggling to execute whatever musical ideas you are trying to express with your playing, your attention will be on the technical demands of what you are doing. There won’t be a lot of focus left for the music itself. The result will be playing that sounds technical and unimaginative. If however you play from a place of simplicity, a comfort zone well within your technical capacities, then the technical aspects of your playing can go on to auto-pilot, and you can give 100% of your attention to the musicality and expressiveness of what your are playing. The result will be much more musical and interesting for the listener.

You will also find that adopting this approach helps everything stay relaxed, so that you play with greater finesse and accuracy, even if it might be well below your technical capacity. I find that as one tries to push one’s limits technically, one often tenses up, which results in stiff and inaccurate playing. So play what you find simple, stay relaxed, and focus on the music rather than your technique when playing.

Of course as one develops as a player, through regular steady practice, one’s technical capacities increase. One’s zone of simplicity expands to encompass things that would have once seemed impossible. In fact, you can look at your practice routine as a way of expanding your zone of simplicity.

So when performing, play in your zone of simplicity, and concentrate on the music. And always be working on increasing your zone of simplicity through your practice routine. But don’t take my word for it, try it out in your own playing, and see if it works for you!

Practice tracks: Metronome beats

It’s good to spend some practice time each day working with a metronome, to develop precision and consistency in your timing. Not everyone has access to a metronome, however, so here are some basic “metronome” tracks that you can use to help develop your sense of timing. Start with the slowest track, (50bpm) and try to play the piece you have selected, either strumming chords or playing a melody, or doing your finger exercises. When you can do that, go to the next fastest track (60bpm) and so on. I have done them as a basic drum beat, with kick (bass drum) on  beat 1 and snare on beat 3.

Free MP3 download: metronome beat 50bpm

Free MP3 download: metronome beat 60bpm

Free MP3 download: metronome beat 70bpm

Free MP3 download: metronome beat 80bpm

Free MP3 download: metronome beat 90bpm

Free MP3 download: metronome beat 100bpm

Stay tuned for other speeds – I will post soon!

Enjoy, Rob.

How to Get the Most from Your Practice

Most of my students will have heard me say how a small amount of practice each day is much better than a large amount once a week! It’s something you will hear me say a lot! A daily practice schedule is the foundation for learning any instrument. For beginning students fifteen or twenty minutes a day is a good start. As students develop they will find that half an hour per day works well. From there, it depends on your goals and your motivation, and your love of music! The more you practice, the better you play!

A good practice session will have the following elements:

  • Some finger exercises, such as scales, or arpeggios, or finger flexibility exercises;
  • Some work on strumming and chords;
  • Some practice reading music, working on a song;
  • Some creative play – improvising to chords played by a friend or recorded.

I always like to finish my practice session with some creative play, because that is a lot of fun, and a good reward for your hard work in other areas of practice! Check out the practice tracks available on the school website, and make them a part of your practice schedule!

Talking About the Blues

One of the styles of music I love to play, and love to teach, is the blues. Much of modern pop and rock music owes its distinctive sound to the rhythms, harmonies and scales used by the American blues musicians. The Blues had its roots in the south of the USA, in the Mississippi delta region, and the first blues guitarists often sang on street corners. They developed the resonator guitar, made of steel, to help produce a louder sound. Look out for Son House and Robert Johnson as exemplars of this early blues. After the second world war, many people from the South moved north to Chicago and Detroit, and blues began to feature the electric guitar. Have a listen to performers like Muddy Waters, B.B. King and John Lee Hooker, who were playing right through the fifties, sixties, seventies and beyond. B.B. King still performs to this day, in his 80’s! These players really influenced the British blues/rock explosion that occurred in the late sixties and early seventies. Such big names as Eric Clapton and Keith Richards (Rolling Stones) were big fans, and through these players and their contemporaries, the blues features of the bend, the pentatonic scale and the dominant seventh chord, found their way into rock and roll and popular music, and are still a big feature in today’s rock and pop. Australia’s own John Butler is also well worth a listen, with roots in the blues! 

To play the blues, one needs to work on several areas of playing. Firstly, get the minor pentatonic scale under your fingers! Secondly, work on getting some bends happening, especially bending the flat 3rd, the 4th and the flat 7th. Thirdly work on some phrasing. A lot of the blues is based on call and response type melodies, that have their origins in the field hollers on the slave plantations of the American South. So think in terms of 2 bar phrases, with the second phrase repeating (perhaps with some variation) the first, and then going on to a new phrase! And finally, don’t forget to exercise your ears. Put on your favourite record, and see if you can play along. Even if you can pick out one or two notes here and there, it will help you to hear in a new way the music that is being played, and eventually will help you to play it yourself on the guitar!