Sunday, May 17, 2020

Phil's Rules of Guitar

I have been playing guitar for more than 20 years, quite avidly for most of them. From the start, my goal has always been to be able to pick up a guitar and play songs with feeling.

Throughout the years I've found great personal reward from playing and singing and writing songs. I love finger picking, jamming, strumming, flourishing, sweeping, rocking out, and very occasionally djenting. The most influential guitarists in my personal pantheon are David Gilmour, Joe Satriani, and Stevie Ray Vaughan; although there are many, many players who have influenced my songs and technique. From Curt Kirkwood, to Frank Zappa, to Fink; Django to Eric Johnson, Suzanne Vega, Paul Simon, B.B., Tom Waits, Elliott Smith, Jason Isbell, Jimi, Joe Pass, Brendon Small, Blaze Foley, Bootsy, Queensryche, The Beatles, Ben Folds, MFSB, TMBG, The Allmans, David Bowie, Bonnie Raitt and far too many others to ever encapsulate in one trifling list.

I've met a lot of players, taught a few lessons, love experiencing live shows, and listened to an awful lot of music. I think anyone can become a better player. I think the satisfaction of playing songs is its own reward, and I believe that if you are lucky enough to share your music with other people that is a wonderful experience. Maybe the defining experience of a lifetime.

All of this is to say that while I certainly don't know everything about playing the guitar, I know a few things. I know that many people wish they could improve their playing, or learn to pick up and play at all. I say to you all that it is very achievable. I'm happy to share the exercises and experiences that are part of my technique, but first I'll share my foundation.

I follow three very simple rules in guitar, and when I am being self-critical and want to improve, the first thing I ask myself is how true I am being to them.

I absolutely guarantee* that if you follow these three rules your playing will immediately improve.

Phil's Three Rules of Guitar

  1. You Play What You Listen To
  2. Know Your Tuning
  3. Tap Your Foot

You Play What You Listen To

I was almost eighteen when I first started playing guitar and I took some lessons from a cat named Greg Greenwald - and if you think it's pretentious to refer to him as a cat and not a dude or a player or a person, you haven't met him. He's the quintessential cool cat, and that's that. Greg eventually moved to Austin and I haven't heard from him in decades, but in my formative years he showed me some pretty important things.

In my time with Greg I picked up chords, chop builders, string bends and even my first formal exposure to the twelve bar progression. But the most important thing he ever taught me was on our first lesson when he asked what I wanted to learn on the guitar. I told him my hero was David Gilmour, and Gilmour always talked about the blues so that's what I wanted to learn. So Greg asked me what blues music I listened to, and I had no answer. I listended to classic rock, alternative, and metal mostly. That's what was on the radio.

"How are you ever going to learn to play the blues if you don't listen to blues music?", he asked me incredulously. From that point on every lesson included a listening assignment. Seek out the three kings, he told me at first. B.B., Freddie, and Albert all have unique tones and they sound more different than they do alike, but they all play the blues. Learn to tell a Texas shuffle from Chicago style - delta blues from gospel - dirty blues, medicine bottle slide, and horn arrangements. Be able to tell Guitar Slim from  Johnny "Guitar" Watson. Listen to more B.B., and hear how his band and arrangements change throughout all those live albums but the songs can be the same.

Eventually he played some Stevie Ray Vaughan for me and that set me on a course for quite a few years. Robert Cray once said, "for a long time coming there's going to be a lot of frustrated guitar players trying to pick up on Stevie's stuff." And he sure nailed it.

If you want to play Texas blues, you have to listen to the folks who invented it and the music that inspired them. If you want to learn swing jazz, put on some Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington. If you wish you could play Flamenco you have to learn the language of the music. You have to feel those songs, not just read the changes from a fake book, or pick up a new strumming technique and hope it sounds like Flamenco.

Know Your Tuning

If you can't tune your guitar your playing won't sound good. It is natural when you play for strings to stretch or even slip a little and this changes the pitch. If you can't tell when your strings are drifting out of tune your playing won't sound good.

A guitar's standard tuning is (low to high) EADGBE. Being able to pick up a guitar and tell if it's in tune is the single most fundamental aspect of performing on the instrument. An electronic tuner is a good way to get started and keep yourself playing, but if you play in standard tuning, you should quickly come to understand that the interval between most of the strings is different than the interval between the B and G string. Maybe it will help you to know that those intervals are a fourth and a major third respectively, but maybe it won't. Those labels aren't the sound.

You can learn to tune without an electronic tuner by knowing which frets on adjacent strings line up with the open string (5, 5, 5, 4, 5 - low to high). You can learn to sound harmonics and hear the waves go in and out of phase when the same harmonic note is struck on two different strings. To get a guitar properly in tune, you just need a reference tone. I like to use an A tuning fork, but most metronomes can generate an A at 440 hz. You can also type "A 440" into google and find hundreds of sources online.

There is a lot of music written and transcribed for standard tuning, but that doesn't mean people always play this way. People retune their instrument. Frequently. Some of your favorite songs may be in alternate tunings. In standard tuning the open, jangly chords are E and A, with G and C relatively simple shapes to learn. You'll quickly find that an open D chord is a little different, because it only uses the top four strings, and this can be limiting or difficult to strum at first. But if you drop the low E string a whole step to D you can strum a very jangly open D or make power chords on the low strings with just one finger. This is called dropped D tuning, and you might enjoy trying it, or its somewhat underused cousin, double dropped D (found by tuning down both E strings) to write and learn songs.

Many horns, however, don't tune to E or A or D, but to B flat. If you want to play with horn players, it might eventually occur to you to use a capo, which is a device that clamps over the neck of the guitar and shortens the string length - effectively tuning your instrument upwards in pitch. Putting a capo on the 1st fret makes the open keys F and B flat. People use capos to allow for familiar chord shapes and changes in other keys while keeping their guitar in relative tune.

This is all still correct playing. Players find tunings that help them express themselves through song. If you love Joni Mitchell's songs, and want to play them, you'll quickly learn that she used dozens of alternate tunings. A musician might prefer open C, open G, or DADGAD. Pete Townsend liked to change the tuning of his guitars as a way to make familiar chord shapes sound new and interesting. Kim Thayil had this to say about alternative guitar tunings:
Well, the whole drop-D tuning thing was probably popularized in Seattle as a consequence of our success. And we couldn’t be stagnant and just stay there, so we started playing around with other tunings. We liked the fact that what we were playing didn’t sound like what our friends and peers were playing. So we started introducing things like open slide tunings into our songs. Then we had what we called the “digga digga” tuning, which was drop-D with the A string dropped to G. That really took off for us around [1991’s] Badmotorfinger. And also the [low to high] E E B B B B tuning that Chris and Ben used on [1994’s] Superunknown. [This tuning can be heard on Superunknown cuts like “My Wave” and “The Day I Tried to Live.”]

Stevie Ray Vaughan liked the tone of thicker, heavier strings and would tune every string on his guitars down a half step to reduce the tension on the neck. Metal players like to take this further and tune down a whole step, or even play in dropped D down a whole step to dropped C in order to produce a darker, booming sound.

What matters is being aware of the intervals you leave between strings, and keeping the pitch of the strings consistent. As your ear gets sharper you might find that at certain points on the neck of your guitar, even when the electronic tuner says the string is correctly tuned, the pitches of the strings don't quite line up. This is a natural result of string gauge, intonation, and fret placement, and there's no way to truly have your guitar perfectly in tune at every point on the neck. Many people have tried to solve this problem, so if you're fascinated by this idea go read about tempered tuning and maybe check out the Buzz Feiten Tuning System.

You have to know how your guitar is tuned to create good sounding music, but that doesn't mean you have to play in standard tuning.

Tap Your Foot

The third rule is so simple I'm almost embarrassed to share it. Almost. So many players learn to play and only listen to the clicks of a metronome, or play without anyting at all to keep their tempo steady. Then they are shocked to hear that their playing is slowing down and speeding up when they play with a band. Tap your foot to the music. Do it when you're listening, and definitely do it when you're practicing and playing. Tap to a metronome, tap along to recorded songs, tap your foot when you jam with another player. This simple act engages wholly different parts of your brain and locks you into the groove.

If Al Di Meola practices foot tapping, so can you.

Thanks for reading, and keep on practicing!

* not a guarantee