Guitar Time

Happy New Year, readers! I have been really enjoying practicing guitar lately, so I will write about that.

The Guitar

I've had a Martin Dreadnought body acoustic since high school that I think is a lovely guitar, but on a recent trip to my wife's parents' house I tried out her old classical acoustic that she learned on in high school and loved it. I honestly don't even know what brand it is... it says "Signature Series", model no. "C2", "Designed by Greg Bennett", and "Made in Indonesia." The intonation isn't great, especially as you get higher on the fretboard, but when it's in tune I think it sounds really neat. Also the nylon strings are much more pleasant on my fingers than the metal treble strings. So now I practice on it almost exclusively.

The Songs

The first song I started learning was "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" by Bob Dylan. I didn't really know anything about that play style (I guess it's called "Travis Picking"), but it just seemed like a fun song to be able to sit down and play. Travis picking is also ubiquitous in acoustic guitar music, so I figured it would unlock a lot of other songs. And it did! I dunno I don't really feel like writing more about it, you all know this song.

The next song I learned was "Eugene" by Sufjan Stevens off of "Carrie & Lowell". Like much of this album, this song is a haunting reflection on Sufjan's childhood, relationship with his parents, and mother's death. Absolutely devastating song to listen to over and over again, but that's what I did! The progression is fairly straightforward, but for a beginner like me it was pretty difficult physically. The main left hand shape involves index, ring, and pinky in sort of a claw shape while leaving the G string between ring and pinky open (3 5 0 5). This same shape moves up and down the fretboard throughout the song. This is difficult for me for a few reasons:

  • It's hard to get my pinky to land on the right string. It tends to fly off on its own whenever I shift positions, and ends up landing in the wrong place when I try to put it back.
  • My ring finger constantly mutes the open string.
  • Whenever I slide to the next position, the squeaky string sounds seem too loud, and often I leave a ringing string behind as well. I think maybe I push down too hard on the strings or something.

This song is gorgeous though, and I feel like I still get a lot of mileage out of practicing it because it touches a lot of fundamentals.

After these two songs it was off to the races. I started learning a couple others off of "Carrie & Lowell" (title track, "Death with Dignity"), and some songs from Sufjan's recent collaborator Angelo De Augustine ("You Needed Love, I Needed You", "Blue"). Then I branched off into another Stevens (Cat) and leared "The Wind", which is a totally different finger pattern. Oh, side-note: I was inspired to learn "The Wind" because of the show "1899", which is a great show you should watch if you liked "Dark". Now I'm focusing on "Hearts and Bones" by my boy Rhymin' Simon. This song is really hard for me, but it's so satisfying to play.

The Method

I usually end up using tabs or YouTube videos to learn the songs, but I always spend at least a few minutes trying to figure it out by ear first. I usually end up with something vaguely resembling at least part of the song. Then I look up live performances of the songs, and try to figure it out by looking at their hands. Then if I'm still stuck, I look up the tabs like a dang scrub.

Eventually I would also like to do some more rudimental practice that is not just learning songs. One thing I miss about Tabla is the strict practice routine, in which I would practice a short movement thousands of times in a row to build stamina. But I haven't really found a book or anything with these types of exercises that interests me, so I'm just going to stick with songs for now.

The Goal

The concrete goal is to know 12 songs top-to-bottom in 2023. That is, I can play along with the entire track. Right now I can probably do this with 3-4.

I guess the goal-behind-the-goal is to open another creative outlet for myself. Since my band broke up just before the pandemic, pretty much my only creative outlet has been programming. Eventually I would also like to get to a place where I could write my own songs. This style of music that I've been learning feels very accessible in terms of songwriting, because they often have really simple structures and lyrics. I'm hoping the more songs I learn, the more instincts I'll build up for chord progressions and things like that, and writing songs will come a little more naturally than it does now (that is, not at all). Or maybe I will just learn a bunch of other people's songs! That's fine too!


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