Archive for the ‘Guitar’ category

On the Need to Make Music

August 21, 2018

Since I’m retired (whatever that means), I have more time to excavate long-ago crannies of my life.

I was reflecting on when one transitions from boy to teenager.  “One” being me, of course, as the overwhelmingly predominant source of my material.

This was in northern Canada (although the Bulkley Valley in north central British Columbia is not that far north really).

Young and impressionable, after listening to the inspiring music of the late 1960s from afar through a few records and more importantly, night-time rock radio, I longed to create the same emotions I felt.  I wanted to rock, to move people, to express truth.

I hungered to play music, to play guitar, to stir people.  There was nothing I wanted more, in the way of the young.  My failure to accomplish anything in that realm, through a combination of lack of musicality, of lack of instruction, and without proper equipment, had a rippling effect through my life that even at this remove I can glimpse. (I fear that it was mostly lack of musicality.)

I wonder if there isn’t something similar for every young person, an object or area of immense emotional sustenance if only it could be brought fully into one’s life.  In my case, I think it was rock music and guitar.  For some other young one, it might be racing motorcycles, or painting landscapes, or being a comedian.  I think there must be some such for every one, although it might only be foggily felt, or deemed too mundane or too special to receive encouragement.  There are artesian wells of yearning in the young that the adult world often tries to cap.  Or the yearning is allowed to exhaust itself through indifference.

In some ways my failure at music helped make me remote, painful, standoffish, insecure, and melancholic. Although as a teenager, this probably was the normal state of affairs!

RamblersPhoto1I was the nerd who sat and listened, the only audience in the noon-time classroom, while the school sock-hop band – voice, guitar, drums and bass – practised Secret Agent Man and Wipeout for a dance.  I couldn’t play, but at least I could listen….

The poor old school band was surprised at receiving such attention at their practice times.  There was something obsessive about it, I admit.  I always clapped after they finished playing.  They were unsure how to acknowledge their audience of one.

It is true that passion does not necessarily signify talent.  I am a good example of that.  But now in the latter half of my sixties, I learn to once more play guitar and appreciate the modest musical abilities I do have.

I am lucky enough to have some rewarding recording experiences thanks to a music teacher and producer.  It means a lot to me, and makes me want to do more.

The fountain is bubbling in my heart again, like a boy.

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Note: Image is of the band, The Ramblers, from the site GarageHangover.

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Rock CDs (and a DVD) I Just Had to Buy

July 26, 2018

Now that I’m retired, music I love is taking up more of my time.  I’m trying to play more, and learn more, in my lower intermediate rock guitar student way.  I’m listening more, especially to bands I neglected in the past (or think the wider culture has neglected).

And I just finished reading This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of A Human Obsession, by Daniel Levitin.  One of the saving graces of human beings as a species is music, in all its forms.  The book describes how humans are hard-wired for music.  We should be grateful for that.

I’ve got shelves of CDs already, and I really don’t need to add to them, but I couldn’t resist buying a few recently.

From Amazon, which has become a major resource, I picked up the first new CD in 20 years from the New Riders of the Purple Sage.  It has songs with lyrics by Robert Hunter, famous for his contributions to the Grateful Dead.  I’ve never had a CD of theirs or even listened (to my knowledge) to the New Riders, although I know they’ve been around for a long time, but the Robert Hunter connection made me want to check them out.

Another from Amazon is Janis Joplin Live at Winterland ’68 with Big Brother and the Holding Co.  This was fairly early in Joplin’s short career, and the band, Big Brother, also shows what it is capable of as one of the original psychedelic outfits.  I love Janis in live performance, the rawness and sheer over-the-top passion – I’m thinking now of the Festival Express DVD where she bowls everyone over with her astonishing performances.

And my third CD from the ubiquitous retailer is the Zombies’ Still Got That Hunger. The Zombies, an English band, are famous for their songs from the 60s like Time of the Season and She’s Not There.  Pretty long in the tooth, these guys, but I want to hear what they sound like now with new material in this CD from 2015.

The Disappearing CD

It’s harder and harder of course to find CDs at any local storefronts in the Greater Vancouver area.  And CDs themselves are apparently slowly on the way out, given the tendency to buy single tunes online or obtain through file-sharing.

But in the little fishing village becoming gentrified that is Steveston (a hamlet within Richmond, BC, home to the Vancouver Airport), there is a small bricks-and-mortar shop called Beatmerchant, where CDs are still sold.

The owner, Frankie Neilson, actually knows a lot about most of the music I love.   He worked in the music industry in the UK with Polydor in the 1970s.  He relocated to Vancouver in the 1990s after spending some time in Toronto.  He started his physical store in 2005.

Wishbone Ash Argus

So from Frankie this week I bought Argus by Wishbone Ash.  I have it on an LP but since I almost never get around to hand-cranking my old Kenwood turntable and listening to any of the old long-plays, I decided to get the CD.  (You probably don’t know about Kenwood’s series of hand-cranked turntables which required considerable strength just to get going, like a Model T….  OK, just kidding.)

Argus was Wishbone Ash’s biggest album and rose to #3 in Britain in 1972.  They were a band playing progressive rock I guess you could say, with folk and classical influences.

Also from Beatmerchant is the 2 CD compilation The Essential Paul Revere & The Raiders. You never hear them now even on so-called classic rock stations, but Paul Revere & The Raiders were big when I was growing up during high school and into the early 1970s.  My brothers and I listened to them a lot on our battery-powered Phillips phonograph (since we didn’t have electricity for many years – not kidding).

Some of their early hits include Kicks and Good Thing.   They were Columbia Records top-selling rock band of 1967.  Later, they shortened their name to The Raiders and had hits with Indian Reservation and Birds of a Feather.

They often liked to wear Revolutionary War costumes….

And finally, Beatmerchant had a DVD I didn’t know existed: Stephen Stills & Manassas – The Lost Broadcasts. Manassas was a band that Stephen Stills formed with some other heavy weights of the time such as Chris Hillman and Al Perkins.  Their primary release was a self-titled 2-disc LP in 1972 (mentioned in this post).  The group only lasted a couple of years, but I’ve been a fan ever since.

This DVD apparently shows the band performing a number of songs on German television.  The YouTube video of It Doesn’t Matter gives you an idea of the band.

So the next step is for me to listen to all this good stuff!

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Revisiting Grand Funk Railroad

July 5, 2018

Many of the thronging hordes that frequent this blog may not have even been alive when the power trio Grand Funk Railroad were in their heyday.

I was around in the late 60s, early 70s when at least one of their songs became unfortunately very popular.  I say “unfortunately” because an almost meaningless song like “We’re An American Band” was constantly on the radio, when they had so many other great rock ‘n’ roll songs we should have heard more of.

However, I can forgive “American Band” every time I hear “I’m Your Captain/Closer To Home.”  Take a moment now to listen to it…. Isn’t that epic?

I listen to it as if it is a mysterious fable wanting to tell me something. At the end I’m never sure what, but I’m still touched by the telling.

It did get considerable play in its day, despite being 10 minutes long, especially on FM radio at that time, which was almost as free spirited as the early internet.

The song became an unofficial anthem of Vietnam vets, who came to hold the song and its writer Mark Farner in high regard.  It resonated with their experiences wanting to come home from the war zone.

So, Mark Farner on guitar, Don Brewer on drums and Mel Schacher, bass, made up Grand Funk Railroad, which was formed in 1969.  (However, others participated in the future.)  Its original configuration was that of a power trio.

Power Trio!

(“Gramps! Gramps! Whatever is a ‘power trio?”

“Why, little one, for a short time it was a magical combination of musicians for playing rock music.  It was loud, energetic and expressive in a tempestuous time.”)

In those days, some people thought Grand Funk borrowed a lot of their sound from Led Zeppelin, a quartet.  But they were really in the mold of Cream, that famous power trio.

But listening to them as I have been recently, they seem more like a northern yankee version of the Allman Brothers Band, a much larger unit.

The Funk were good.  So together in their playing.  It’s amazing, as was the case with other good power trios, that they could raise such a mighty and melodic wall of sound.

Mark Farner’s lead guitar is often restrained but capable of wonderful passages.

The compilation I have is Classic Masters – Grand Funk Railroad. I will mention some of the songs in rough chronological order.

The history of the band can be divided into two rough periods, Terry Knight as producer, 1969-72, and the well-known Todd Rundgren for most of the time after that.

“American Band” and their other #1 hit “The Loco-Motion” (which I do like a lot better than “American Band”) came from the Rundgren period in the 70s.  He brought a more radio-savvy appreciation of the times and of what could be a possible hit.

“Time Machine,” their first single back in 1969 from the Terry Knight years, is blues-rock which chugs along so lovely.

“Heartbreaker” is from that early time too.  A blues wailer to start which turns into a power anthem, so controlled, then surprising in its rendition of majestically combined voices.

“Miss Mistreater” is the only GFR live recording released as a single.  A morose sarcastic ballad is sung with a sense of experience and understanding which transitions to a high-tempo freakout, then slows again.

Then “I’m Your Captain” arrived and impressed many, although there were some who considered it musical gobbledegook.

The band added a keyboardist, Craig Frost, and went off to Nashville to record songs like “Rock and Roll Soul.”  This is a pretty standard hollerer about rock ‘n’ roll, which you know will live forever, man!

I have to say that the band’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” outdoes the original.  They truly made it their own.

I won’t mention every song in the compilation at hand, but I did like the hard rocking “Shinin’ On” a lot from 1974 and the Rundgren period.  Great intro….

After Rundgren, a new producer Jimmy Ienner got involved in the mid-70s.  “Some Kind of Wonderful” — can I get a witness! — and “Bad Time” come from this time.  “Bad Time” is catchy and definitely gone beyond into pop music.

“Take Me” was released as a single in December, 1975.  Great guitar solo from Mark Farner.  He sounds a little like Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits here.  And then there was no more of substance to hear from the band.

Listening now, I think Grand Funk Railroad are much better than what may be their general reputation in rock music.  It’s true at the time when they were producing music I didn’t think they were so great, yet every time I heard “I Am Your Captain/Closer to Home” I had to stop and listen.

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Guitar Dreams

May 1, 2018

I wanted to play so much

as a green teenager

I needed to make music as stirring

As what we heard on

our battery radio

on cold winter nights

all over the Pacific Northwest

down to San Francisco

 

In a northern cabin

A guitar came into my hands

From my mother

Acoustic, hard to play

Poorly made

I puzzled to play something

vaguely rocking

While in the background

Donovan

sang

Hurdy Gurdy Man

 

Fight

To play the guitar

No instruction

Little talent

Just willfulness

It ended badly

With a whimper

 

Now in my latter

years I have returned

to the beautiful

instrument

Still not very good

But better

 

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The Perennial Music of the Grateful Dead

June 21, 2015

It’s just a box of rain
I don’t know who put it there
Believe it if you need it
or leave it if you dare
But it’s just a box of rain
or a ribbon for your hair
Such a long long time to be gone
and a short time to be there

— “Box of Rain”

The last hurrah of the Grateful Dead, the 50th anniversary concerts in July by the surviving members, is a cultural moment.

The band will be joined by Trey Anastasio, of the band Phish most famously, filling in for Jerry Garcia (gone since 1995), and Bruce Hornsby will also be there for the farewell in Chicago.

Dilapidated and grey, like most of us who began to grow up in the 1960s, the Dead still evoke a time and a musical atmosphere that has long faded. After July, those times will only flare again into light for a few minutes when visiting the musical and visual record.  It will be a second-hand way, but the only way, for those born too late.

I was never a Dead Head — my favorite bands were the Beatles, the Who, CSN&Y, CCR and Dire Straits.  But I also listened to a lot of other bands, and I did buy The Grateful Dead’s Aoxomoxoa — the 1969 album with “China Cat Sunflower,” a song long appreciated by the Dead’s fans. I remember that at the time I didn’t like the album that much.

grateful dead aoxomoxoaBut now I’ve begun to listen to the Grateful Dead to understand what I missed.  I remember when I lived in San Francisco for a year as the 1970s rolled into the start of the 1980s, that the Dead came to town on at least two occasions.  Suddenly there were wildly painted VW vans and bugs all over the place, and long-haired fans in unfashionable clothes everywhere.  Crudely painted signs on cardboard asked for tickets to the shows from those who had them to give or sell.

I was living pretty close to the bone, trying to write, and to learn and practice aikido and t’ai chi ch’uan.  I didn’t have extra money for a band that from a distance even at that time seemed a relic of the past.

I’m coming to revise that opinion now.  Of course much music from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, the Steve Miller Band, Tom Petty and the Allman Brothers Band, among many others, will persist beyond their times.

But there is something even more timeless about the Grateful Dead, in a much different way than say the long-lived popularity of the Doors’ music, who seemed to have a sensibility acceptable to those of this millenium.  There’s something both quaint and perennial to be heard in the Dead’s music.

Sun went down in honey.
Moon came up in wine.
Stars were spinnin’ dizzy,
Lord, the band kept us so busy
We forgot about the time.
— “The Music Never Stopped

You listen to the Dead’s recordings, you hear something of the time the band came into being, a shimmer of the west coast explosion of the Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, and all the rest.

But the Dead’s roots go further back, to old-time blue grass music, folk, country and gospel.  The Dead’s main lyricist Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia played together in very early days in blue-grass bands such as The Tub Thumpers.

Although mainstream understanding has always denied this, the impact of psychedelic drugs, including LSD and marijuana, was to open a portal of creativity that transformed those influences into something new.  Many of the bands of that era had their doors of perception opened that way, including the Beatles and many others, and with the impetus of natural musical talent, incredible music flowered.  Of course, those drugs and others not so creatively inspiring such as heroin and cocaine were also a source of great danger, and Garcia himself fell victim.

Robert Hunter, who supplied the words and worked with Jerry Garcia for many of the Dead’s best songs, was according to Wikipedia paid to take LSD, psilocybin and mescaline and report on his experiences at the University of Stanford in a CIA-sponsored program in the early 1960s.  He sees this as “creatively formative.”

Now that I’m in my mid-sixties, a lot of the Dead’s lyrics speak to me in a significant way, from “what a long, strange trip it’s been” to “let it be known, there is a fountain that was not made by the hands of men.”

I’ve become enthused enough by the Dead’s music to acquire a couple of books of their music for guitar, so that I may learn it.  Just looking at the words, tabs and notes, their music starts playing on my internal jukebox.  “Sugar Magnolia….”

The most popular songs, like “Truckin'” and a “Touch of Grey,” always remain listenable to me.  The song “Box of Rain” though has become one of my favorites, along with “Ripple.”  I anticipate that there will be others that I come to appreciate greatly as well.

But it’s “Uncle John’s Band”, a song that I always thought was catchy but disposable, that I want to learn how to play for myself now.  Its structure, looking at the music on the page, is surprisingly complex. But the lyrics are evocative and meaningful to me as the band immediately begins to play in my mind.

I hail the Grateful Dead as they pass.

Come hear Uncle John’s band
playing to the tide
Come with me or go alone
he’s come to take his children home.

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The Aging Learning Guitarist Keeps On

February 11, 2015

I’ve got to keep on keepin’ on
You know the big wheel keeps on spinnin’ around
— Steve Miller, Jet Airliner

At this point on my guitar learning adventure (as previously chronicled in such posts as The Impatience of Learning Guitar and Manchild with Guitar), I’m trying to challenge myself to play in more difficult territory and perhaps be able to claim to have some intermediate skills eventually, rather than to be just a beginner.

I’m still taking lessons from the same rock guitarist and music producer I’ve gone to for several years.  They are funny kind of lessons, but they have evolved over time and suit me.  I bring in a piece I want to learn how to play.  One time it was a simplified, if still complicated, Bach tune, another time a very fast (for me) blues-rock number.

I’m not quite sure what Eddy thinks when I bring along something like these to learn, at the edge of what I’m able to do.  He very patiently goes through each piece with me as we work on phrasing and technique.  As a working musician and quite a good teacher for a young guy, he’s a master at simplifying, if only temporarily, until I get up to speed on difficult passages.   I tend to throw my hands up in dismay at my effrontery in even thinking I can play them.  But we work through that, and with more practice than I like to say, I make progress.

Because Eddy loves to work with music, even my efforts, he’s taken to recording them in his home studio.  I think he likes to record me because I’m not going anywhere in particular with what I’m doing, and there are no expectations or demands or requirements on him for the finished results.  We just get to play around.

I now have a half-dozen or more recordings of my renditions.  They sound pretty good after he’s done splicing and editing them meticulously together.  They’re fun to have and to show off to any friends or family whom I can impose upon….  And I get to learn a little about music production, although half the time I’m not quite sure what he’s talking about.

All Along the Watchtower

My latest project is to learn to play All Along the Watchtower, that wonderful version of a Dylan song by Jimi Hendrix.  I think that’s my favorite Hendrix tune.  So I gathered together a bunch of instructional videos off of YouTube, got some sheet music together and backing tracks, and presented it to Eddy as what I wanted to do next.  I have to hand it to him, he didn’t blink, and started putting the backing tracks and the original song into ProTools to work on.

I want to do it like a Ventures tune, an instrumental version including the voice parts, which you don’t find done so much.  Although I had started trying to learn the opening rhythm section and the first intro solo, it was a bit of a shambles.  It’s another example of me ruing my ambitiousness.  So we’re going through the song step-by-step.  We’re up to the second solo and it’s starting to sound not too bad.

Hendrix was a monster player, as every guitarist realizes.  He played like there was absolutely no barrier between his musical will and his hands and fingers expressing that will on the guitar. And he must have had incredibly strong hands to bend the strings like crazy as he does.  Eddy has got me cheating on some of the more extreme bending, but it still sounds good.  And there’s one very fast passage so far — I’m working hard to get it into my fingers so I don’t have to think about it, and just do it.

There are many great solos in this song, and even if I’m not able in the end to play any of it very well (although I hope for better than that!), I’m still learning a lot by pushing at the boundaries of my ability in this way.  Even if I feel like a schmuck when I flounder, as I often do….

Useful Guitar Learning Resources on the Web

In my guitar journey, in addition to the useful sites mentioned in previous posts such as the great Robert Renman’s two — Dolphin Street and Master Guitar Academy — I have found some very good additional sites.  Almost all of these sites have a free lesson component and then offer lessons or material to buy.  The proportion of free on the ones I’ll note here is quite high.

The kind of free instructive material is also important — some of the most commercial sites just offer fragments to entice you rather than anything useful.  I think the better sites like Renman’s are actually very smart marketing — I’ve learned a lot from his free stuff and I’ve gone on to buy several lessons I wouldn’t otherwise have been interested in.  I know the detail and care he puts into them.

1) Fundamental Changes — Lots of lessons “In the Style of ….” (Dave Gilmour, B.B. King, Keith Richards, etc.) which are good for picking up new licks, and also many videos on theory and technique (Harmonics on Guitar, Chromatic Notes in Solos, etc.).

2) Fret Jam — Very clear and well taught videos (and written material) on many aspects of guitar musical theory, in particular.  For instance, one recent free lesson is on “Suspended Guitar Chords — How and When to Play Them.”  Another recent article is “The Best Guitar Chord Software & Chord Tools On the Web” which will lead you to a number of other good and informative sites.

3) Fachords — Although it also has free video lessons, the most interesting part of this site I find are the free online Guitar Apps .  These include a scales finder, a chord finder, fretboard trainer, speed trainer, interactive scales harmonization, and more.

There is just so much good guitar instructional material on the web.  I am guilty of buying more books, having more links and downloading more videos than I will probably ever go through in the detail they deserve.  I just wish it was all available when I was a kid, when I made my first unsuccessful stabs at learning the instrument.

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The Impatience of Learning Guitar

August 16, 2013

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.

moko back front web 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….

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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:

Aging Guitar Enthusiast

Manchild with Guitar