On March 1, 2017, I asked myself the question: With only one month of practice, can I play a 5-minute improvisational blues guitar solo?
On March 26, 2017, after 24 hours of practice, I found out that the answer was yes.
During the month of March, I documented my entire learning process in a series of 31 daily blog posts, which are compiled here into a single narrative. In this article, you can relive my month of insights, frustrations, learning hacks, and triumphs, as I strive towards monthly mastery.
Today, I start a new month and a new challenge: Can I play a stunning, expressive, and engaging 5-minute-long blues guitar solo after one month of intensive practice?
Measuring success for this challenge is fairly tricky. It’s not clear how I should quantify “stunning, expressive, and engaging”, nor is it clear that “stunning, expressive, and engaging” are the most desirable qualities of a good guitar solo.
With that said, the hope is that I can play something that is good enough to keep the attention of those who listen for five straight minutes.
Considering most songs on the radio are under three minutes, five minutes of blues playing (which is naturally very redundant in chordal structure) is a long time to maintain interest.
To do this, I will need to cultivate a large blues vocabulary, develop the dexterity necessary to express my musical ideas, and learn how to create/sustain musical tension.
What’s my starting point?
For this challenge, I’m not starting from zero. In fact, I have a ten-year off-and-on history with the guitar, which will certainly help. However, 90% of this history has been acoustic-focused, so this month’s emphasis on electric “lead playing” (i.e. soloing) is newer and more exciting for me.
Here’s my guitar journey so far:
For my 13th birthday, I received an acoustic guitar, which sat in my room untouched for nearly a year. The following summer, at summer camp, my friend taught me a few chords, and, upon returning home, I started playing more regularly.
During high school, I continued on the acoustic guitar, strumming and plucking my way through (mostly) pop songs. When I was a senior in high school, I was gifted an electric guitar, which I started to noodle on.
When I went off to college, I didn’t bring either guitar. My freshman and sophomore roommates both had nylon string acoustic guitars, so I’d occasionally borrow those. During my junior year, I only touched a guitar the few times I was visiting home for the holidays. For my last semester at Brown, since my course-load was pretty light, I brought my electric guitar to school, and tried to regain some of the abilities I had cultivated ~4 years prior.
When I moved out to California, both of my guitars stayed at my parent’s house, but I did bring the more portable ukulele, which I’ve played about twice per month for the past 1.5 years.
Recently, my parent’s shipped my electric guitar to San Francisco, and I’ve been getting back into lead playing.
I’m hopeful that, with one month of intensive practice, I can make a major leap forward.
If I could emulate only one blues guitarist, I’d study B.B. King, whose playing is warm, sweet, and typically major-sounding. John Mayer, who is heavily influenced by B.B. King, also often plays with this kind of warmth.
Stylistically, I prefer this kind of blues playing to the playing of more traditional, minor-sounding blues players like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert King.
Nevertheless, I can probably learn from all these guitarists, blending their styles with my own sensibilities to create my ideal sound.
But, before I get ahead of myself, I should start by nailing down the fundamentals…
To begin making progress towards my goal of “blues guitar mastery”, I first need to define my training strategy. Unlike previous months, right now, my strategy is fairly unstructured, with no clear 31-day arc.
Nevertheless, I need to start somewhere. So, as of now, here are the four parts to my training strategy:
1. Cultivate expressiveness
Most blues guitarists create solos from the same small pool of musical notes, and yet, some solos sounds mechanical, while others scream with emotion.
The difference isn’t typically the variety or speed of notes, but rather, the way the notes are played.
In particular, to make the guitar sing, I’m going to focus a lot of my attention on learning the following three “expressive techniques”:
- Vibrato — The wobbling of a note to make it mimic the human voice
- Bending — Gliding continuously between two different notes, again mimicking the human voice
- Fall-off — A quick descending pattern of notes at the end of a musical run, again again mimicking the human voice
I’ll describe these techniques in more detail in future posts, but the theme is clear: To create a dynamic, emotion-filled solo, practice techniques that make the guitar sound like a human voice.
2. Develop a few “speed licks”
While expressiveness doesn’t usually come from speed, as a blues solo reaches it climax, speed can help build musical tension and add another dimension of dynamics.
Thus, I’ll focus on building a small, but well-practiced vocabulary of speed licks that I can insert into my solos to create and sustain musical momentum.
3. Steal from my influences
For much of this month, especially when I’m away from the guitar, I will be listening to my favorite blues artists and capturing inspiration in two forms:
Firstly, by listening to a lot of blues music, I’ll develop a better “ear” and intuition for blues solos. Ideally, with time, this will allow me to hear what I want to play before I play it.
Secondly, I plan to steal licks that I like from my favorite guitarists. The hope here isn’t to build an arsenal of lego-like pre-fabricated licks that I can piece together, but instead, to find licks that introduce and unlock new musical ideas for me.
Creating great art is always an interesting balance between the familiar (i.e. the borrowed) and the novel (i.e. something completely new or, at least, a new interpretation of the familiar). I’m curious to see how I strike this balance in my playing.
4. Play with constraints
Right now, I find that my blues playing is very repetitive: I only practice a few licks, usually in the same key, with minimal variation.
To break out of this box, I’ll force myself to play in new ways by guiding my playing with a range of constraints. I’ll explain exactly what this means in an upcoming post.
I’m sure that my strategy will evolve over the next 29 days, but, for now, I will start with these idea, carefully monitor my progress, and update my training regiment accordingly.
Tomorrow, I’ll share a video of my playing, which will hopefully help make some of these ideas come to life.
Today, I’m going to review the basics of blues guitar, so it’s easier to follow along with the rest of the month (and so you can try to learn as well, if you want).
It turns out that blues guitar is very basic. In fact, to successfully play a blues song, there are only two things you need to know.
1. The chord progression
Most blues songs follow a “12 bar blues” progression, which is a series of 12 repeating musical measures. For each measure (or “bar”), one of three musical chords is played: The “one chord” (notated I), the “four chord” (notated IV), and the “five chord” (notated V). The I is the chord associated with the key of the song. The IV is the chord that corresponds to the fourth note in the scale of the key of the song, and the V is the chord that correspond to the fifth note in the scale of the key of the song.
A traditional “12 bar blues” is constructed in the following way: Play the I for one bar, then the IV for one bar, then the I for two bars, then the IV for two bars, then the I for two bars, then the V for one bar, then the IV for one bar, then the I for one bar, then the V for one bar. Then, repeat.
This may sound complicated (it’s not), but I’m sure you’re familiar with the way it sounds…
With the 12 bar blues progression internalized, I (theoretically) should be able to play a solo that follows the changes, which is a fancy way of saying “play notes during a particular bar that sound good over the chord of that particular bar”.
2. The available notes
The most basic blues solo is built from only five notes. Together, these five notes are called the pentatonic scale (“penta” for five). In the key of A for example, the (minor) pentatonic scale includes the notes A, C, D, E, and G; and sounds like this…
In this form, the pentatonic scale is pretty boring, so it’s perhaps surprising that most solos are built in this way. Nevertheless, as I said yesterday, a solo isn’t more compelling because of its variety of notes (usually), but rather, because of how the notes are played.
I suspect that I’ll branch out beyond the pentatonic scale at some point during this month, but it’s a solid starting point.
Is that really soloing?
My first exposure to the pentatonic scale was when my friend explained it to me at summer camp. I was 14 years old.
A few weeks later in the summer, another friend, who brought his electric guitar to camp, played me a guitar solo “that he wrote”.
Immediately, after he finished, I said “Did you actually write that? I think that was just notes from the pentatonic scale”.
“Um, yeah, it was. But, like, I came up with the order and stuff”.
“I don’t think that’s how solos work. Solos are freeform and improvised. They don’t just follow patterns or formulas”
It turns out I was wrong.
Before I ever learned about improvisation on any instrument, I was under the impression that improvisers just plucked notes out of thin air using some kind of musical sorcery. I didn’t realize that there is underlying theory and patterns that help guide all soloists.
Anyway, I tell this story to say: Musical sorcery doesn’t exist (at least, I don’t think so). Instead, even the greatest blues guitar solos are still built on the same basic foundation that my friend taught me in five minutes at summer camp.
And that’s it. Blues guitar playing, on paper, is really simple. You just need to know the 12 bar blues progression and the pentatonic scale.
Of course, to make the solo compelling, these basic building blocks need to be transformed in some capacity. So, for the rest of this month, I’ll be working on this transformation.
Over the past four days, I’ve spent about 3.5 hours practicing the three “expressive techniques” I previously introduced: Vibrato, bends, and fall-offs.
These techniques are used to help convert mechanical-sounding guitar notes into stylistic, lyrical expressions of pain, sadness, or hope (or whatever blues music is supposed to emotionally evoke… I think I’m going to stick with hope).
This post mostly contains video demonstrations of my progress, as well as some commentary.
Vibrato is the wobbling of a note to make it mimic the human voice, and is achieved on the guitar by quickly wiggling the string.
Most guitarists wiggle the string upwards from the starting position and then back to neutral, over and over. But, for some reason, this is really unnatural for me. I find it much easier to wiggle the string downwards and then back to neutral.
This causes a bit of a problem though: In soloing, it’s normal for much of the playing to happen on the few highest-pitched strings, which are positioned on the bottom of the neck. On the very highest string (the most bottom string), I can’t create downward vibrato because I’d be pulling the string off of the fretboard. Instead, I’m forced to attempt the unnatural upward kind.
So, after four days of practice, my vibrato on the other five strings sounds pretty good, but my vibrato on the highest-pitched string still needs a lot of work. Take a listen…
Now that I have some semblance of vibrato (still a work in progress), I can start adding the quick wiggle to my guitar licks to add extra expressiveness.
Here’s an example…
In the guitar world, a guitarist’s vibrato is often the defining characteristic of their style / sounds, so I plan to continue to invest heavily here, especially on the highest string.
In the same way that the human voice can glide continuously between two tones, a guitar note can be bent up to another note (and then bent, or returned, back down again).
If used properly, bends can create emotional and musical tension, via the anticipation of where the note is going, and subsequently, can deliver release, once the note gets there.
Sometimes, guitarists will overshoot the anticipated note, as a way to surprise or delight the listener. This is the same kind of delight that you might experience when a singer seems to be singing at the highest point in her range, and then all of a sudden, pops up another few notes. Anyway, this is a more advanced technique and I haven’t explored it too much yet.
Instead, I’ve spent the past few days determining and practicing the bends that are permissible within the pentatonic scale (I guess any bend is permissible, but these are the “safer” bends as far as staying in the correct musical key).
With a foundational knowledge of “safe” bends, I can start adding them to my guitar licks as well.
I’m not necessarily sure this particular example sounds better with a bend, but it’s certainly an additional “musical color” that I can use in my soloing.
I’ve always been particularly fond of fall-offs, which are used gratuitously by guitarists like B.B. King and (especially) John Mayer.
Fall-offs mimic the short, downward runs that singers often place at the end of musical ideas (in order to prevent the sonic uncomfortableness of holding onto one unchanging note for too long).
Over the past few days, I’ve tried to develop a convincing “fall-off style”. Here’s where I’m currently at…
As long as I can keep my fall-off usage within a range of tasteful moderation, I think they’re a nice addition to my playing in general.
Here’s what all three techniques sound like when put together…
Overall, I think I’m making nice stylistic progress. Now, I just need to find/steal/create melodies that I can style.
Today, in an attempt to start absorbing blues licks*, I planned to learn the entire song Lucille, one of B.B. King’s most iconic songs.
(*a lick is just a series of notes that can be packaged together and reused as a contained musical idea)
To clarify: For me, “learning” a blues song doesn’t mean memorizing the entire song note-for-note, but instead playing through the whole thing, analyzing what the artist is doing, and determining how I can incorporate some of the artist’s musical ideas into my own playing.
Today, I thought I could easily work through the 10-minute Lucille in an hour, since, for much of the song, B.B. is talking and not playing.
However, after 60 minutes of practicing, I made it 41 seconds into the song, most because I severely underestimated the density of musical inspiration. This isn’t a bad thing, but does mean that I’ll need to reassess my original lick-learning strategy.
Originally, I planned to spend about a week playing through dozens of my favorite songs, in an attempt to absorb as much musical inspiration as I could. Then, I would spend subsequent weeks digesting, interpreting, and converting this material into my own.
In theory, this seems like a nice idea, but one that just isn’t accomplishable in the timeframe I have.
Instead, I’ll need to be much more strategic upfront about which source material I use for inspiration. I’m not sure how this new strategy should work, but I’ll figure it out tomorrow.
It’s been almost one week since I started this month’s challenge. In that time, I’ve practiced “expressive techniques” (like vibrato, bends, and fall-offs), become more familiar with the pentatonic scale, and extracted some inspiration from my favorite artists.
Today, I felt ready to put these pieces together and record my first attempt at a blues guitar solo. Here it is…
While I was playing, the solo didn’t feel that great, but listening back, it definitely resembles the genre. In fact, there are a few moments (like at :20, for example) that I quite like. I’m definitely making solid progress.
Nevertheless, there’s a lot more I hope I can accomplish with a guitar solo: 1) Express emotion, 2) Tell a story, 3) Create melodic growth and interest, etc. Right now, the solo feels very deliberate and effortful — coming from the brain, and not the heart.
Still, this is a good start and a strong foundation to build on.
Today, I sadly needed to take the day off from playing guitar. My hands demanded it.
Here’s what happened: Previous to March, I casually played the guitar once in a while, mostly strumming chords. Then, all of a sudden, March begins and I start aggressively bending the high-tension fishing-wire-thin metal strings over and over again with my left hand and continuously plucking the same strings with the index finger of my right hand (I don’t use a guitar pick).
As a result, disgusting blisters have blossomed on half of my fingertips, which make it very painful to play the guitar.
I’ve actually been playing with these blisters for the past three days, but today, my fingers were just too sore.
I googled “How to quickly heal finger blisters from playing guitar”, and the most common advice I found on forums was “Just keeping playing until they bleed…eventually you’ll stop getting blisters”.
I don’t think I’m hardcore enough to follow this advice, so I’m just going to take the day off and listen to some music instead…
In other words, I play the entire solo in the same spot on the guitar, which means 1) I’m only using a limited number of notes, and 2) My brain is stuck creating licks in this one position on the guitar.
As a result, my solo isn’t diverse tonally or musically — the recipe for a boring solo.
Thus, today, I focused on learning the pentatonic scale in new positions on the guitar neck. Here’s a video of my expanded pentatonic knowledge (I didn’t quite focus my camera properly today… luckily, this is mostly just an auditory demonstration anyway).
While many of the notes are exactly the same in these new positions, the spatial relationships between the notes are different, forcing my creative brain to fire in new ways.
So, while my playing in the video is still a bit mechanical, I feel I’ve opened up new musical terrain that I can explore in the coming days.
Today, in an attempt to add more diversity to my playing, I explored two new concepts: Double-stops and turnarounds.
Double-stops are a technique on the guitar where two (or more) notes are played simultaneously in a melodic way.
I found double-stops to be very natural, and in a few minutes of practice, I got pretty comfortable with them. I also learned some new chords voicings (ways to play the common blue chords) that nicely complement the double-stops.
Take a listen…
I plan to use both the double-stops and chord voicing as filler between my single note licks to create fuller-sounding solos.
Secondly, I experimented with turnarounds, which are melodic sequences played at the end of a twelve bar blues to transition into the next twelve bars. I found these to be much more difficult — a bit like guitar “tongue twisters”.
You’ll definitely recognize the first turnaround I play, which is the easiest…
I’ll probably use turnarounds more often when I’m playing completely solo, without a backing track (i.e. when I’m trying to accompany myself).
Regardless of how I use turnarounds in my playing, I will definitely add them to my warm-up routine: I can use the dexterity practice.
Today, my goal was to develop speed.
In particularly, I spent almost two hours practicing a few different “speed building blocks” that I can piece together to create fast extended licks.
Here’s an uncut video where I noodle around with these ideas…
My playing here is still pretty sloppy, but it’s a step in the right direction. Also, as I mentioned very early on, speed isn’t the goal. In fact, speed on its own doesn’t sound very musical.
Instead, speed is a tool that can be used tastefully at strategic points within a solo to create musical tension or interest.
Over the next few days, I’ll experiment by adding these speed licks into my blues solos. Hopefully, with some practice, I can improve my dexterity and develop a better sense of how speed can be effectively used.
Today was the day.
I turned on a blues backing track that I found on YouTube, plugged in my guitar, and started soloing.
Eight minutes later (halfway through the track), I realized that I had stopped consciously paying attention to my playing. When I tuned my brain back in, I was surprised to hear how natural my playing sounded.
I had leveled up.
Over the past week and a half, I’ve been practicing intensely and acquiring a lot of new guitar knowledge. As a result, to effectively incorporate what I’m learning into my playing, I’ve had to be very deliberate and calculating as I solo.
This is fine as I’m learning, but solos typically don’t sound very musical when they’re played in a calculated fashion. (My solo from five days ago is evidence of this.)
Today, though, something happened. I’m not exactly sure when it happened, because I genuinely zoned out for about five minutes when I was playing (in a good, meditative sort of way), but it felt like it happened quickly.
My brain entered into this zone where playing the guitar suddenly felt effortless.
It felt so good that I was scared to stop playing. I feared that, if I stopped, I would lose this newly found power.
Back in November, when I was learning to memorize cards, I had a similar feeling: During the first two weeks, I felt like I was drowning in my practice, and then, all of sudden, something clicked, and I started severely outperforming my expectations. After each memorization session, I would always think “There’s no way I’m ever going to be able to do that again”, but then I would.
That’s exactly how I feel about my guitar playing today: I have a hard time believing that I’ll wake up tomorrow and still be able to play the same way.
But, if November is any indication, I will be pleasantly surprised. Whatever happens tomorrow, I’ll definitely film it.
Anyway, this feeling of “leveling up” is the reason I’m still motivated by this project. It’s honestly so addicting…
Yesterday, I promised to film a new attempt at soloing today.
I was hoping to spend some time warming up, practicing, and then, once ready, filming my attempt. However, I spent a little too much time enjoying San Francisco’s first really nice day in a while, and as a result, only had about ten minutes to practice today.
So, I just set up my camera, turned on the backing track, and recorded myself cold. The result is a six-minute solo that starts off okay and gets better as I warm up. By around 4:00, I’m more or less warm.
After listening back, there’s a lot I like. But, I’m not sure it sounds like a solo. Instead, it sounds like six minutes of pleasant background noodling. I’m not telling a story or building to anything.
I think part of the problem is that I’m attracted to playing more and more notes, as that seems like the way to “improve”. However, I suspect savoring fewer notes is the best path to soloing.
Tomorrow, I’ll force myself to play 5x fewer notes and see how it sounds.
Yesterday, I played and filmed a reasonably bluesy guitar solo for over six minutes. My goal this month is to “play a 5-minute blues guitar solo”.
So, have I succeeded?
I’m not sure.
To me, the answer feels like no: I definitely haven’t accomplished what I set out to do, but on paper, technically, I made blues noises come out of my guitar for over five minutes.
This is the first month of my M2M project, where the goal isn’t super measurable, and it’s making it tough to know where I stand.
This isn’t important from a “success” standpoint. But rather, if I don’t know where I stand, how do I know what I need to improve?
The answer is… I don’t really. I have to focus my training based on feel.
Yesterday, my analysis was “I think I’m playing too many notes and not effectively telling a story. I should focus on less notes and try to build a musical narrative”.
Of course, this is just my opinion. And, even if this was a universally accepted analysis, how do I know when I’ve effectively told a story?
Again, I don’t.
I can keep going, but I think the point is clear… If you want to learn something on an accelerated timeline (or really any timeline), it’s super helpful to set a goal that’s measurable and trackable.
Maybe, I should have just learned the Free Bird solo…
Anyway, I have a vision in my head of what “successful blues guitar” sounds like, but I don’t know how to articulate this vision or make it measurable. I also don’t know how to share it with anyone who’s reading this, which makes it pretty hard to follow along.
You’re just going to have to trust me that, like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, I know it when I see it.
Today is March 14, a.k.a. Pi Day.
So, to celebrate, I thought I’d do something a little bit different today, and write a Pi-inspired song. Here’s what I did…
1. I looked up the first 20 digits of Pi
2. I picked a musical key
A major; with the notes A B C# D E F# G#
3. I converted the digits of Pi into the key of A
1 = A; 2 = B; 3 = C#; and so on. 8 = A and 9 = B (italics = octave higher)
The result: C# A D A E B B F# E C# E A B G# B C# B C# A D F#
4. I recorded a simple chord progression
Simply alternating back and forth between A major and B minor chords
5. I played the Pi-inspired melody over the chords
And that’s at.
Here’s the result. It doesn’t actually sound too bad…
For the past two weeks, my evenings have been pretty full…
I get home from work, workout, shower, make dinner, practice guitar for 45 minutes, setup my camera, plug my guitar into my computer, start recording on Garage Band, play for the camera, stop filming, download the video, export the audio from Garage Band, sync up the audio and video in Adobe Premiere, add basic overlays to the video if necessary, export the video, upload the video to YouTube, write my Medium post, publish my Medium post, go to bed.
More simply, there are five main tasks: 1. Workout, 2. Dinner, 3. Practice guitar, 4. Make video, 5. Write Medium post.
My challenge every night is to muster up enough willpower to get started on each task. Once I start, I’m usually able to finish without a problem. (If I don’t start, it’s probably because “watching YouTube videos” is more enticing).
Most nights, I usually have enough energy to happily work my way through the list. But, tonight, wasn’t one of those nights.
Due to a combination of a long day at work, a bad night sleep last night, and some other stuff on my mind, I was pretty low on energy when I got home today. Some nights are just like that, and that’s okay.
Sometimes, it’s okay to outsource the willpower, make tradeoffs, and just relax. Here’s what I did…
I got home. I was pretty warm from my walk home from the train, so I changed into my gym clothes to cool off. I was not prepared to go work out, so instead, I texted my friend to come over in 30 minutes, and spent the meantime, on the couch, watching YouTube videos.
30 minutes later, I was still pretty low in energy, but I was already wearing my gym clothes and my friend was here to workout, so it wasn’t too hard to get to the gym. Once I was there, I had enough energy to do a decent job.
My friend left, I made dinner, and then again, had no energy. So, I hopped in the shower and let my mind wander for a while.
After the shower, I still had three things left on my list: 1) Practice, 2) Make a video, 3) Write a Medium post.
I definitely didn’t have enough energy to do all three.
The Medium post is non-negotiable, so that stayed. The big question then is… Do I spend my remaining energy doing a good job practicing or a good job making a video?
If it was fully up to me in the moment, I would have chosen to make the video. It’s much less intensive than 45 minutes of deliberate guitar practice.
But, at the beginning of this project, I made a rule with myself: If I ever have to sacrifice either the quality of my internal progress or the quality of my external progress, I should always sacrifice the external progress first.
So, that’s what I chose to do tonight: I spent 45 minutes practicing the guitar (specifically using vibrato at the peak of bends), and skipped out on the video.
Summary of “Low-Willpower” tactics
- Get into your gym clothes, even when you don’t plan on going to the gym.
- Don’t force it. Relax if necessary.
- Invite a friend (who can provide willpower on your behalf).
- Make tradeoff decisions beforehand, so you don’t have to decide in the moment.
- Bonus: Sometimes, it’s cool to just completely take the day off. (I’ve had a handful of those since starting this project).
After 40 minutes of practicing tonight, I was in the mood to create something. Specifically, I wanted to shoot a video that didn’t feature a red guitar, gray t-shirt, jeans, and a white background. Something different.
I had the idea to crawl into bed, set up my computer as a looping station, and film myself creating a simple two-track loop.
The loop turned out pretty cool, but the experimental video footage was essentially unusable. Check it out…
While this was the “play” part of my evening, something practical did come out of it: I’ve been improvising over the same few backing tracks for days now, which, after playing over this self-made track, I realize isn’t optimal for my musical creativity.
Over the next few days, I’ll find and practice over new tracks, hopefully triggering new improvisational ideas.
Today, I practiced the guitar for about 90 minutes, one of my longest training sessions so far this month. And yet, it didn’t feel super productive.
Namely, my playing is stuck in a bit of a rut. I don’t necessarily mean that it’s bad (in fact, I’ve already improved much more this month than I anticipated), but rather, my playing feels very repetitive — everything I play is inspired by the same, narrow set of musical ideas.
Basically, I’ve been slacking off.
Let me explain…
My original plan was to first build up an arsenal of musical inspiration (by learning from an number of different blues artists and songs), and then, convert this inspiration into reasonably solid blues guitar playing.
Instead, I only analyzed two songs, before I shifted all of my focus to my own improvisations. As a result, I have two songs’ worth of ideas to pull from… Hence, my musical rut.
For the past week, every day, I’ve considered analyzing a new song, but chose to noodle around and practice general technique instead.
This is embarrassingly bad… I’m clearly shying away from the “harder”, more intensive thing, even though I know it’s important to my progress. And this is exactly the definition of slacking off: “Not doing something, even though you know you should”.
Tomorrow, I will stop with the slacking, and shift my focus back to building my arsenal of musical inspiration.
Today, Chuck Berry — musician, guitarist, and pioneer of Rock n’ Roll — died at the age of 90. He largely introduced the guitar as a melodic centerpiece (and not just a rhythm instrument), and, as result, plays a part in my learning challenge this month.
Also, Chuck Berry indirectly influenced me to pick up a guitar in the first place: I started seriously playing the guitar after my friend showed me a John Mayer song at summer camp. John Mayer started playing the guitar after he saw Marty McFly play Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” in Back to the Future. So, Chuck Berry is definitely part of my guitar story.
Anyway, in memory of Chuck Berry, I decided to learn the intro lick to “Johnny B. Goode”, which turns out to be more challenge than it sounds.
Here are my three attempts at playing the song (after recording the lead part, I overdubbed a rhythm guitar part, which you’ll also hear).
As I mentioned two days ago, I’m shifting my focus back to “learning from others”. In particular, I’m hoping to borrow some new musical inspiration from my favorite guitarists.
This morning, I found an amazing series of 10+ videos, where B.B. King is effectively giving a private guitar lesson on camera.
Today, I picked one of the videos, and tried to emulate B.B.’s playing and style. Here’s the video…
And here’s a video of me soloing based explicitly on the above inspiration.
Specifically, I focused on letting the guitar breathe (i.e. empty space between licks) and playing some new chromatic ideas that I learned from the lesson.
Over the next few days, I plan to attack the other videos in the series in a similar fashion.
Here’s what I came up with…
I’m finding this approach very fruitful: Basically, B.B. has done years of work — studying theory, developing his own style, and building a vocabulary of licks. Then, I open the video, listen for a few minutes, and make use of the final product.
Sure, a lot is getting lost in translation, but I’m still speaking the language much more quickly this way.
This is the same reason I like (audio)books so much: The author spends years doing research, compiling notes, and organizing her life’s work into a 300-page book. Then, I can pop in my earphones and absorb most of the material in a few days.
That’s the cool thing about humans… We can build on each other’s knowledge, which is an opportunity I plan to take full advantage of.
I’m not sure this is actually “stealing”. At least, not the bad kind. But, I’m definitely getting more than I bargained for.
Today, I didn’t practice. Instead, I just played.
I wasn’t trying to improve. I was just trying to enjoy it. And I did.
I found a long, looping backtrack on YouTube, pressed play, and then proceeded to solo over the track continuously for an hour. While I was playing, I wasn’t fully listening to the sounds of my guitar. Nor was I thinking about anything in particular.
Instead, I was in a highly-relaxed, fully-absorbed meditative state (which I also enjoyed two months ago while speed-cubing).
In positive psychology, flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.
So, yeah. I guess I was “in flow”.
For some reason, I’ve always been uncomfortable declaring this. I’m not exactly sure why. It just seems like one of those things that people make up, because… who can prove I wasn’t in flow?
Anyway, I’m not sure this is the point. My point is… Sometimes, it’s worth turning down the intensity, halting “progress”, and just trying to enjoy the act of making music (or anything else).
On my way home from work today, my friend Steven sent me the following message:
“JM” stands for John Mayer.
And yes, I have been wanting to learn the intro to the John Mayer song “Out of my Mind” for the entire month, so this was just the push I needed.
While I didn’t learn the intro note-for-note, I did my best to capture what John is doing in the song. My performance turned out a little stiff (I was concentrating too hard on execution), but I start loosening up towards the end.
And here’s the John Mayer song…
Thanks for the nudge, Steven.
Yesterday, I attempted to play the intro to one of John Mayer’s blues songs.
After watching the video back, I was fairly disappointed with my expressiveness: My playing was stiff and emotionless.
On other days, I’ve played completely fluidly (with more emotion), but without much of a narrative arc. In other words, in small chunks, the solo is interesting, but, after a while, it gets repetitively boring.
And this is the main challenge I’m facing: How do I pay conscious attention to what I’m playing, so it’s interesting, without overthinking it, stiffening up, and forgoing emotion?
One idea is to pre-visualize the solo I’m going to play, determining the general arc beforehand. Then, I can just play fluidly and hope my mind sticks to the plan. I’m not sure if this would work, or would make things even worse, but it’s worth a try.
Another idea is to utilize breaks more efficiently. In particular, I can use the time in between licks to plot my course, and then, once I decide where I’m going, I let the playing flow naturally. Again, I’m not sure if this is an improvement or an over-complication.
In any case, I should listen back to recordings of my practice sessions more often. Right now, most of my playing isn’t being recorded, so there is no way to listen from “the outside” and analyze the solo in a more removed fashion. I’m generating all this good data about my playing, and not doing anything with it. I need to change that…
Over the next few days, as I practice and experiment with some of the above ideas, I’ll record the full session and make sure I devote a significant amount of time to analysis. I think this will help a lot.
Side note: It would probably be a lot easier to keep a solo interesting and dynamic if I were playing with a band. Maybe, I’ll try to go to Guitar Center this weekend, and find someone to play with.
Today, I planned on recording a very long practice session. And yet, when I sat down to play, I couldn’t get into the zone.
I tried to play my way through my out-of-zoneness, hoping that, after a few minutes of “forced” playing, I would settle into my normal practice routine.
However, the more I forced it, the more my mind (and guitar-playing fingers) rebelled, making it harder and harder to play anything on the guitar.
When this happens, it’s best not to keep forcing. This isn’t easy, especially since I set aside a significant amount of practice time today and planned on a very productive session. But, sometimes, things don’t go as planned, and that’s okay.
I listened to my brain, put the guitar down, and moved on. There will always be tomorrow.
Today, I was able to turn things around and get really immersed in my guitar playing. In fact, during my practice session, rather than interrupting my “flow”, I just leaned my iPhone against my laptop and filmed today’s video on the practice couch, rather than against the white wall in the kitchen.
I forgot to record the guitar into the computer (which I realize at around :37 seconds into the video), but the iPhone audio ended up being usable. The backing track may be a little loud, but it works.
This is definitely my best solo yet. It’s diverse, passionate, and engaging. It’s also longer than five minutes, which means… If this solo meets my hard-to-define, yet “I know it when I see it” standard for blues guitar solos, I can officially say that I’ve completed March’s challenge.
After listening back, this solo does seem to meet my standards. However, due to the subjectiveness of this entire thing, I’ve decided to sleep on it, listen in the morning, and, if I still am convinced, I’ll declare the challenge complete then.
Honestly, the one thing really holding me back is the sound quality. I’d rather the “successful solo” be perfectly captured (at least from an audio standpoint). But, that’s probably not necessary from a purely “did I execute the skill or not?” perspective — plus, I still have a week or so to record other guitar solos if I want.
Tomorrow, I’ll make the final call.
Yesterday, I played a five-minute improvised blues solo, which, at the time, I felt met this month’s learning goal. Still, because of music’s inherent subjectivity, I wanted to sleep on it and make an official decision today.
After reviewing the footage today (and getting a lot of texts from friends who all said “That definitely counts”), I’m officially going to declare March’s challenge complete: I played a good* 5-minute improvised blues guitar solo.
*good as defined by the video, I guess…
As I said yesterday, because I filmed the solo on my iPhone, the audio mixing isn’t ideal.
In the next few days, I may try to record a couple other solos with better audio. I’ll probably stick to sitting on the couch though — it seems like my playing is much better sitting down.
At the end of yesterday’s post, I mentioned that I found it easier to play my guitar while sitting down, which is mostly due to my guitar setup. So, I thought I’d use this post to explain and breakdown my complete, not-so-complicated setup…
This month, I’ve struggle to play the guitar standing up because I’m not using a guitar strap (I don’t own one). Instead, I removed a strap from a duffle bag and attached it to the guitar the best I could.
This strap isn’t designed to nicely distribute the weight of the guitar over my shoulder, and, as a result, it usually isn’t the most comfortable to wear for too long. Still, it got the job done this month.
Two days ago, when I sat down to record my solo, the burden of the strap was gone, and I could play freely.
Sadly, I didn’t capture the audio of that performance in the way I normally do, so the mix wasn’t ideal…
Normally, I connect my guitar directly to my computer using this $11 chord. If you have some combination of an electric guitar, neighbors, and no amp, this is a great investment. It works out-of-the-box with amps in GarageBand.
Lastly, some people have asked what kind of guitar pick I use. The answer… I don’t actually use a guitar pick.
My friend at summer camp, who originally showed me some chords on the guitar, was a classical guitarist, so he only plucked and strummed with his fingers. So, that’s how I started and continued to learn. (I have played with a pick before, and it’s no problem, but I like not having to be dependent on another accessory).
Oh, and the guitar is an eight-year-old Gibson Les Paul Studio.
This month of consistent guitar playing has been great, but it’s definitely lacked an important part of making music: Other people.
Growing up, I primarily played “the drums”, so almost all of my musical experiences were with other people (the drums like to accompany melody-creating instruments). And I had quite a lot of these musical experiences…
I started playing in group settings at around age 9 in the school band. In middle school, I started playing the drum kit in the school’s jazz ensemble, which I continued through high school. In high school, I also played some type of percussion in the school’s stadium band (for football games), orchestra pit (for musicals), and concert band (i.e. the more traditional wind ensemble). Also, during high school, I played percussion in a jazz combo that gigged locally.
Basically, I spent a decade of my life making music with other people.
In college, I noodled on the guitar. Friends often came over to “jam” (a.k.a. the cool way to say sing-alongs…?). But, I never played with other instrumentalists, which I definitely missed.
After this month of “guitar mastery”, it would be really awesome to try playing the guitar in a group setting. Unlike the drums, I’ve never done this before, so it would be cool to try.
Anyway, if anyone lives in San Francisco, is a solid musician, and wants to play some time, send me a message and we can set something up. If you have or know of a space where we can play, that’s even better…
Since it’s almost the end of March, it’s time to look back and see just how much time I spent on this month’s challenge.
Accurately counting hours this time around is a bit tricky: Do I count all the times I noodled on the guitar, or just the times that I practiced with the explicit intent of improving? And if I do count the noodles, how do I actually count them (I only wrote down my longer sessions in my practice log).
Since there were a lot of quick, few-minute noodles on the guitar, this probably isn’t a perfect estimate, but I’m going to assume, on average, I noodled on the guitar for about eight minutes per day (outside of my actual recorded practicing).
My typical daily practice session was 50 minutes long, so, in total, I spent an average of 58 minutes per day practicing for 25 days.
In other words, in order to master blues guitar, I spent 24 hours practicing, which is actually surprising. I would have guessed something closer to 30 hours.
In either case, not too crazy.
Today, I played the guitar for the first time in a few days, and, perhaps unexpectedly, my playing had improved. In other words, without practicing at all, instead of atrophying, my improvisational guitar skills got better.
This is a pretty interesting phenomenon, and one I’ve noticed in the past: Basically, when I take a break from practicing guitar, my brain forgets about the few licks I had recently memorized, and I’m able to play more freely and creatively.
Typically, after I practice the guitar often, I find myself resorting to the same few melodic patterns over and over. I get stuck in a particular groove and have trouble breaking into new musical spaces.
By not practicing for a few days, I become unstuck and can more naturally explore new creative areas. This is exactly what happened today.
While there is of course some limit to this “anti-practice” mentality (i.e. eventually, if I don’t practice for long enough, I will most certainly get worse), this idea likely applies to all creative pursuits.
So, if you feel like you are getting creatively stuck, take a few days off. Sometimes, your mind just needs a few days to reset.
Although “guitar month” is essentially over, I plan to continue playing often, especially as a way to relax: I still find playing the guitar the easiest and most consistent way to enter flow (perhaps other than solving the Rubik’s Cube).
Today, I guitar-flowed for about 35 minutes, which was nice.
As far as making forward progress, it’s still challenging to set clear, definitive, musical goals. Perhaps this is okay. After all, in almost all cases, playing music isn’t about “being the best”, but instead, about “creating something people want to listen to”.
It’s definitely better to be the most listenable than to be the most technical (or whatever the quantified version of guitar-goodness is).
Still, I want to improve my musical vocabulary, and feel the best way of doing this is by listening to new artists and new music. Then, if I find something I like, I should try to learn/replicate it, adding my interpretation to my repertoire.
Anyway, this has been a fun month, but I’m too relaxed right now. I’m fully ready for the next challenge to begin and to rekindle my mastery-pursuing intensity…