Pinky rest #2

As we’ve said in the 1st part of this article, resting your pinky is a quick way to stabilize your hand. So let’s look at what to pay attention to when playing that way.

There is really not much to it position-wise. The point of contact will change depending on your hand size and angle at which you pluck the strings with your fingers. Best advice I could give here is to look for what works for you.

As for what is the actual role of the anchor, it’s important to note that you don’t put weight of your hand on it. When I first started playing, I put some serious weight on my pinky. And I had a reason! If i didn’t, my hand (and pinky) would just jump on and off the soundboard. But with time, especially after some longer practice sessions my pinky would start to hurt. Something had to be done. Only when I understood that the proper function of this tool, I could find the right way to use it. Here is what I learned:

There should be little to no weight on your rested pinky. Instead think of it just as some sort of a probe telling you how far the soundboard is. Check this video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r74uI1pQBsI

and notice how Tommy’s pinky freely moves on the soundboard. It’s especially visible in pieces like this one or Tall Fiddler. So once I started working on my hand stability and lifted some weight from my pinky everything went back to order. It stopped hurting, the rest of my hand relaxed and my overall technique moved forward.

The secret to playing with pinky support but not straining it is practicing also without it. Start by playing very easy things without pinky support (pinky should move together with 3rd finger. If you’re not sure, just watch some classical guitar videos). Then play the same things with pinky laid very gently on the soundboard. Let it move a little as your hand moves while switching strings etc. You should be able to brush the soundboard with pinky effortlessly at all times. As you play more and more difficult things without the support try to implement this gentle touch as you play with the anchor as well. Try some strumming with pinky support. Again, while strumming, pinky should brush the soundboard up and down. It shouldn’t impair your hand movement. Soon you’ll get used to new way and your hand will gain new level of freedom.

 

Pinky rest #1

Virtually unknown to classical guitar, resting right hand pinky right under the sound hole is rather common in fingerstyle world. What are pros and cons of it?

When you start to learn classical guitar you’ll often have some trouble with right hand stability. At this stage individual fingers aren’t properly mobilised yet. There is then a strong tendency to use bigger segments of your upper limb to produce a sound. It might be a move from your wrist or even from your elbow. Of course it’s impossible to play that way and a lot of effort has to be put into stabilising your hand and moving just the individual fingers.

Pinky rest resolves this problem almost instantly and that’s its main purpose. This comes at a cost however.

Pinky and ring finger having some tendon connections tend to move together. Anchoring your pinky on the face of the guitar makes it much harder to play with the 3rd finger (“a” finger). It’s inhibited and it’s more difficult to perform techniques like rolls or classical tremolo in even and steady manner.

It’s hard to say whether it’s worth it. Also depending on your target repertoire pros can outweigh cons and vice versa. For me, given that I was always interested in Tommy Emmanuel style music, it was easy choice. But now I have to pay for it when I’m trying to tackle classical guitar songs.

To sum up, if songs that you’d like to play are being played with pinky rest then it’s probably good idea to implement it in your playing or to at least check it out. Otherwise maybe it’s better to work more in the beginning but later to have more choices in your repertoire (especially if you see yourself playing difficult classical stuff at some point).

In second part of this article (coming soon) I’ll try to point out what to pay attention to when anchoring your pinky.

Why a fingerstyle guitarist needs music theory?

This vast and often dreaded area of knowledge gets a lot of bad reputation among beginning guitarists. It’s often viewed as limiting on creativity, not romantic enough and generally uncool. At the same time however I doubt if you could find even a handful of renowned guitarists who submit to this point of view.

Although it is possible to play rather well without music theory, being a well rounded guitarist is whole other thing. But let’s take things one at a time.

1. If you know theory behind the song, you’ll learn the song much faster.

It’s like having whole new reference point. Let’s say that you have this transition inside a song:Aprog

If you don’t care about music theory you just remember the arrangement of fingers. If you forget anything about that, you’re “doomed”.

At the same time, if you recognize this passage as A-Amaj7-A7-A6 its hard to forget it.

To put it differently, let’s say that you have to memorize a word: “drink”. Pretty easy, right? But now let’s take as many letters. Try to memorize a word “jfilr”. Entirely different situation. That’s because you’re concentrating on letters and not on word itself. Understanding and recognizing chords makes remembering songs more like a first case scenario.

2. Understanding how rhythm works makes you a better player.

Time signature, bars, beats. It’s all there to help you, not to distract you from music. Granted, if you have a good ear, you’ll be able to play a lot of things without understanding how it all works, but sooner or later you’ll encounter a problem in which only careful analysis and counting of beats (or even smaller subdivisions) can help.

3. There is no writing or arranging fingerstyle songs without a backbone of theory.

Of course you might be able to create something based on most popular chords with easily reachable melody. The moment you need to step off the beaten path, without theory you’re in much trouble. There are simply too many notes available to search haphazardly for a next one. And arranging is even more difficult. You’ll usually have to transpose the song, find chords, change a base note etc. Without some theoretical knowledge it’s almost impossible.

4. Understanding the theory behind a song allows you to fully appreciate composers effort.

Some most amazing and most ear-pleasing effects in your favourite songs are based on very clever harmony or rhythm. On the other hand you can be surprised by how harmonically-wise simple are some of the coolest and most fun sounding phrases.

5. In each song there is much more to learn than just notes.

By analysing songs you learn, you can get so much more from them. You get the ideas that you can use later, you learn more about theory itself, you expand your musical vocabulary and your imagination.

6. Knowledge for the sake of it.

In our utility driven society we often forget about it. Acquiring knowledge just for the sake of it is what makes us human. Even if we don’t see benefits right away (and trust me, sooner or later you will), sometimes just learning new things is its own reward.

How to learn songs by heart

If you learn your songs from tabs or standard notation, you might be struggling with learning them by heart. I remember that when I was beginning, my sight reading was so poor that I had no other choice but to memorize the material. What I see in my students (especially playing easier pieces) is that they keep on reading from the paper no matter what. The way I try to get around that is to make them learn and practice a song bar by bar. And it’s much easier to memorize it that way.

When you take up a new song you probably play through it couple of times. Oftentimes that’s how people keep practising – just playing the whole thing in a rugged way and hoping that it gets better. Practising smaller beats is much more effective but the quickest way to learn the song and to free yourself from the tyranny of paper is to make the bit you work on as short as possible. Learn just one bar (two at the most). Practice it without looking at the notes until it flows. Than practice next bar the same way. Then join them etc… Practice that way until you complete a single phrase. Than play this phrase over and over again until you don’t have to think about correct notes or fingers.

The funny thing is you have to do this work either way. But by doing those small bits by heart you’ll end up with well practised and memorized song. If you put the memorization work in from the beginning you’ll barely notice it. The alternative is you can learn the whole thing from the notes and only than start memorizing it. But than you’ll have a lot of unpleasant work to do.

If you practice with the notes in front of you, the temptation of looking at them might be too strong. Consider putting the notes at the other side of the room so that you have to get up every time you forget what you have to play. That way you’ll have much more motivation to remember what’s next. Also whenever you struggle to remember something, when you finally do it on your own it’s written much better into your brain. On the other hand, if you just look at the paper, the brain learns that it doesn’t have to remember because the paper is available. So once you read the piece you want to practice, use the notes only as a last resort.

Is it OK to simplify?

It happens pretty often. You choose a song to learn, go through it and notice that some part of it is simply beyond your reach. Or even worse, you spend a lot of time learning first half of the song only to notice that in the second half there is a part that is impossible (or too costly to learn) for you. All this time spent and you aren’t able to finish the song. If you were a classical guitarist there would be very little room to manoeuvre. Classical discipline usually requires fidelity to the musical text. However, since we are playing fingerstyle, which is light music, our reality is more forgiving. Of course some people preach that any changes in the original are bad. But ask yourself this: would you rather play the song you like with couple simplifications or not play it at all?

I firmly believe in compromise approach. Whenever I simplify a song, it’s not because of my laziness. It’s because I know learning it 100% accurate is impossible or  it would take too much time that I could use elsewhere. Of course the ultimate goal is to learn a song in it’s entirety. But it’s not always possible or practical for me. I could do it if I spent very long time practising but at the moment I can’t afford it.

Does it mean it’s OK to simplify? No. It’s not OK. Simplifying becomes addictive and if you don’t watch yourself it can become your second nature. An easy way around things you have to work on. So I think a musician should always treat it as evil… It’s just that it’s sometimes necessary and lesser evil.

One last thing. Try to keep track of all the changes you made to the original. Once in a while, check if your abilities have grown to the level at which you can tackle the difficult part. You can also consider creating simplified version for occasions when you want to just play the piece for someone,while patiently practising the difficult original.

Silent night in 2 arrangements

Closer and closer, Christmas is coming. I guess it’s a good time to refresh my two takes on Silent night as it’s not to late to learn one of them.

First one is an absolute basic. It could easily be your first fingerstyle song. It consists of melody line and some bass notes. No chords, very straightforward. Alternatively it can be a last resort carol if you wake up on Christmas Eve with nothing to play ;).

 

Second arrangement is in the same key (Amaj) but it utilises full chords (basic though). If you have barre in your arsenal it should be pretty straightforward.

I wish you all Merry Christmas with your family, friends and guitar.

Serious fingerstyle songs good for beginners

It’s usually prudent to start your fingerstyle adventure with something that’s specifically aimed at your current level of playing. There are a lot of publications containing songs especially written or arranged for students. Sooner or later however, you might want to learn some real “stage” songs by your favourite artists. That’s where this list might come in handy. Have in mind that these are by no means easy songs. They are just easy compared to other “stage songs” by the likes of Tommy, Chet etc.

 

Freight train – a lot of people start with this one even though it isn’t the easiest one I can think of. There are couple of reasons for that: there is quite a lot of barre, there is some thumb-over-the-neck fretting, it’s played in boom chick which on its own isn’t that easy. It’s easily customizable so a lot of artist have their own iteration.

Trambone – Chet’s classic. Again it’s in boom-chick. Some thumb over the top but no barre.

Windy and warm – Depending on the version it can be very easy or very hardcore (see Tommy Emmanuel’s medley with Classical Gas). Nice introduction to boom-chick.

Imagine – aside from false harmonic ending and repetition of the theme in higher positions, Tommy’s arrangement is pretty straightforward and sounds great thanks to the 6th string dropped down to D.

Here comes the sun – short and not that difficult.

Blue moon – not all of it. If you’re just starting, do the main part and ending as a great introduction to walking bass lines. As you progress, you’ll be able to add other segments.

***

From this point on it gets a little more difficult

Mr Bojangles – arranged by Chet Atkins. If you cut a little here and there it’s pretty straightforward.

Stay close to me – requires strong barre but pretty doable.

Papa George – sweet tune, has couple of tough spots however.

Up from down under – if you loose crazy cascading harmonics part it’s not that hard.

Countrywide – solid boom chick song with not so many difficult parts.

Cowboy’s Dream – G6 tuning but overall doable.

 

This list will expand with time. Also feel free to suggest your songs.