The Impatience of Learning Guitar
As I continue to struggle, and to enjoy, learning to play guitar, I’ve come to understand better those stories of teenage boys practicing five or six hours every day for months and years who later turned into an Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck or Robbie Robertson.
Besides all the emotional sides of that kind of commitment, of determination, of loneliness, of raging to master one thing that couldn’t be taken away or denigrated, of fulfilling some kind of inner calling, there is the matter of how much damn time it takes to play anything decent on the instrument.
Where’s that inner fire?
In my sixties, I don’t have anything like that inner fire, or probably even the modicum of talent needed to sustain it, but I still want to improve what I am able to do. I’m sort of at the cusp of a beginner and lower intermediate player. I do get deeply unsatisfied about my fumblings, and it pushes me to practice more.
There have been some recent books and other writings about learning guitar. I’m thinking most specifically about Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning. I mention the book because it looks like it would be well worth investigating, but I just haven’t got around to it. I should have read it before writing this!
But one of the author Gary Marcus’s points that I did pick up from reading a review, and agree with completely, is the importance of patience. Younger learners seem to just have more of it than us older types.
Patience, patience, patience, as one practices a piece yet one more time.
For a change from the usual blues or rock tunes and exercises that I usually work on, I found an “easy guitar” version of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.
I should explain that as a boy, I loved versions of classical music set to a rock beat. A classic for me is Nut Rocker, by B. Bumble and the Stingers.
There’s also that Moe Koffman album Back to Bach, which horrifies purists, or even regular music fans, with its often disco-like take on some of the classics which appealed to me greatly in my younger years. And there have been many more – from Emerson, Lake and Palmer to At Vance.
So I got out my trusty ChordPulse software and put together a backing track in 3/4 time with a kind of soft swing style beat, since the Bach music provided the chords to input. Then I began to try to learn “Bach Joy” on the electric guitar.
The first stage
The first stage for me in learning any piece is a combination of figuring out what fingering is going to work as I slowly puzzle my way through, and trying to get the notes to combine, however haphazardly, into a semblance of the tune at hand. But I need to have a sense of what the darn thing sounds like….
Some of the typical blues or rock tunes I work on, I have videos and mp3 backing tracks, so a lot of this initial stage is often already well-presented for me. However, with this, I had to listen to various versions online to get a sense of what the melody should sound like in detail, and then see if the tab on the page let me get anywhere close. (I’m not using the backing track yet, that would be too much, and confusing, information for me at this stage.)
I divided the music into sections or long phrases that seemed to make sense, and went through each methodically. I have considerable dexterity in my hands, but little in my ears in seems because it took endless repetition, checking against what versions I could, to start to get something recognizable.
Then on to the next section and the next, slowly, slowly. A lot of patience is definitely required, but if you can hold on long enough and work at it, you can finally detect some slow facility and improvement in whatever piece one works on.
But then I tried to incorporate the backing track. The problem was I couldn’t tell at first by ear where I was supposed to be in the music, where the correlation was between note and chord. So I would play too fast, or too slow, with awful cacophony, and never end up in the right place.
But by sheer repetition I started to hear the chord changes, and where I should be with which note on the guitar.
So then in the next phase, I started to string together all the sections I had learned without the pauses between them, with the backing beat to pace me. Slowly, slowly again, the seams started to blend, and there began to be moments when my fingers played without me directing too much.
And now finally, after a couple of months, I can play, almost, the whole thing at a decent speed accompanied by the backing track. But I always screw up one or two phrases on each play through. So more practice.
Addicted to practice
My music teacher, who luckily happens to be a person of great patience, has taken to recording me in his home studio, partly because he likes to play around with all his fancy equipment, and because it encourages students like me to play better. But it adds another layer of demand in a play-through, and there are always a few glaring mistakes. But no matter, he edits the takes and we finally get something that I can show off to my friends and family.
But I continue to work on “Bach Joy” and I’m making fewer and fewer mistakes. I’ve become, to a certain extent, addicted to practicing. That urge to try just once more to improve is part of the long patience needed to see any development. But then, I’m probably just slow….
Some further notes:
I wanted to provide some praise for ChordPulse, mentioned above, as a straight-forward way to make useful backing tracks on the PC, especially for us solo guitarists. It has some limitations in the styles and rhythms available, but it covers almost all the bases. The program’s author also provides some free programs at his website, a metronome program and a four-chord song application among them. Well worth checking out….
I’ve also written a couple of other posts here on my adventures learning guitar: