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Monday, August 11, 2014

Many Ways to Introduce Guitar (or related instruments)

There's no one right way to start learning the guitar.

Even within the scope of strict classical guitar, teachers debate all sorts of things: Should we start with the plucking-hand alone or including the fretting-hand right away? Start with rest-stroke or free-stroke? Start with only rote listening and following of a teacher or use standard notation? Start with single note melodies or with chords and arpeggios?

Break out of classical assumptions and the options grow exponentially. Start finger-style or with a pick? Start with standard tuning or open tuning or other alternatives? Learn simple songs or simplified versions of more complex songs? Focus on solo guitar or guitar as accompaniment to singing or guitar as in a band context? Use tab or notation? Start with blues, rock, pop, Flamenco, folk-songs, or another style?

Even all those options have cultural assumptions. So, I prefer to start by teaching the basic physics of the guitar (which are truly universal to all styles and approaches). Then, we can explore the options creatively! However, despite my love of open-ended creative exploration, I've found that many students do best with the plain old traditional approaches. It varies from student to student based on personality, interests, and experiences from other studies (both musical and otherwise). With so many different things to learn, even advanced guitarists with decades of experience may remain totally unaware of some of the basics in other directions than the ones they know.

I already posted a lesson video on the rhythmic foundation of guitar. That's one great way to start. Today, I'm sharing a handful of other lesson videos which are still are only a sample of the countless approaches to the instrument.



All these lessons can be adapted easily to related instruments, by the way.

The first lesson on drone-melody style draws from a mix of international musical influences. The psychology of the number of notes in a scale is fascinating; it involves questions about working memory. There's also significance to the unevenness of the notes (some close, some farther apart) as in the Gestalt grouping in psychology (usually shown visually, but the rules also apply to sound groupings).

The drone approach also works well with open tunings (especially tuned to open 5ths, just two blended pitch-classes such as tuning all strings to either D or A). This approach can work with a slide as well. All sorts of scales and patterns can be explored, both traditional and novel. This approach lends itself to everything from Indian ragas to folk songs to techno-dance music (if you mix it with electric effects and beats) and more.

The second lesson on guitar physics is the first overview. Strings vibrate at different speeds depending upon mass and tension (and string mass is in two dimensions: thickness/density and length). Continuing this direction of study means learning about the harmonic series and the interactions of different partials of the spectra of simultaneous strings. That leads to understanding more about the impact of which particular combinations of vibrations will have what effect due to various physical phenomena like interference beats and difference tones.

The third lesson on power chords can lead to more and more advanced rock/pop styles or transition into jazz chord theory eventually. Another alternative direction is to use power chords as a simple foundation for songwriting and then spend most of your time and energy on the nuances of expressing different lyrics and stories in song.

The Richie Havens story is an inspiration to go pursue your own direction and not stick to one of these boxes. As I alluded to, you can still find ways to engage with the culturally relevant music you like. Check out how Richie plays what I would call his own song with the same title and lyrics as a song by George Harrison:


Also, check out my favorite Richie Havens performance: his powerful rendition of Dino Valenti's What About Me?

Now, as inspiring as Richie's music is, I want my students to follow his path of creative expression and not just copy his playing style. On the other hand, Richie made so much music by adapting the songs of others. Don't shy away from blatantly copying or taking inspiration or even little details from others. All music and art is derivative. The goal is to find your own path without falling into the cult of originality.

All the approaches I've shared here have infinite potential for deeper study and advancement. I could go on for hours, weeks, even years building and expanding on each approach into advanced levels.

With all the options, it can seem overwhelming. Among my natural strengths and weaknesses as a teacher, I feel confident in taking complex ideas and explaining them clearly, but I have struggled with being decisive. With so many things to learn and all of them so fascinating, how can one choose a focus?

Generally, I have a few strategies for choosing a direction. In some cases, students have clear preferences already, so we go with that. In other cases, I simply share with students whatever I happen to be into at the moment. I teach best when I'm teaching things I'm excited about and working on myself. Other times, I pick out a book or a student might already have a book, and we use that as a reference for focus. I simply go through and explain interesting things the book left out or share insights into where the book got things wrong.

In the end, I'm not wishing to simplify too much. The possibilities are vast, and we should embrace that and learn to live with it. Appreciate the diversity of life. It helps that I arbitrarily ended up focusing on guitar, of course. The scope there is broad enough, although I try to keep that in perspective too and acknowledge the whole range of possibilities in music and even beyond into all of the rest of life's pursuits. Whew. Enjoy the journey!

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