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Featured Question - November 18, 1999

Question Submitted by: John in Newmarket, NH
Dear Guitar Talk,

I have decided in the past two years to put aside the electric and apply myself to learning acoustic fingerstyle guitar. I've had considerable success with tablature. By commiting a couple measures of a difficult piece to memory each night and then just playing the material every day I've been able to learn some very challenging pieces by John Renbourn, Laurence Juber, Steve Baughman and the like (some have taken considerable time). My playing has improved much and I'm playing more than ever. Here's my problem. Although my technique has improved dramatically in the past few years, I feel like I'm learning guitar in isolation of the 'bigger musical picture'. When I go to work on my own material I feel like I'm back at square one. I have a few decent songs but they are a struggle and I feel I am just connecting interesting parts as opposed to crafting a song with real depth of emotion. I suspect I need theory and have begun to take lessons which have helped a little but progress seems slow for the money. Do I continue searching for the right teacher? Go cold turkey on tablature? Or are there theory books that might benefit me? (I do learn well from books). If anyone has advice or insight for me I would greatly appreciate it.

John in Newmarket, NH
Response by: Chris Proctor
This is not a solution for everyone, but if you're serious about filling in your musical gaps, I suggest enrolling for a year of classroom theory at your local college or community college. There's nothing like putting down the guitar, and spending nine months of learning about chords, inversions, keys, sight singing, ear training, couterpoint, 4 part chorales, and all the cool and esoteric stuff that goes with learning music theory. To me it's the difference between a guitarist and a musician. If your goal is to write some of all of your own music, this course of action is even more strenuously recommended.
Response by: Al Petteway
I might suggest that you take a break from the books and tablature and really listen to your own playing. Close your eyes and get lost in it. Another thing you can try when working on arrangements is to sing the melody slowly and really get a handle on how you want that melody to be expressed. If you can't find a melody to sing, then work on that aspect of your tune until you have one. If you're playing a waltz, imagine a couple dancing to the waltz and give your playing the same kind of lift. One more suggestion. You might try mentally playing the piece without actually having the guitar in your hands. Visualize all of the movements and emotions associated with it until you feel like you really understand what it is that makes that tune effective. Then pick up your guitar and give it a whirl. Good Luck and most of all have fun with it.
Response by: El McMeen
I can't tell from the question whether the problem, if there really is a problem, relates to creating original arrangements, or to rendering music on guitar. Although John's question addresses the former, my suspicion is that the issue revolves around the latter. If I listened to a cassette of John's playing, I could offer more guidance.
Response by: Ken Perlman
Theory is of course always a valuable tool, but I don't think it's the whole answer here. It would of course be easier to give you suggestions if I could watch you play for a bit, but the essence of arranging is really an ear and musical-taste thing. You have to listen carefully to the tune you want to arrange, and then create a setting on guitar that makes it come to life. It might take several attempts while you try the same sequence of notes on different strings and at several different positions on the fingerboard (theory can help here, but you can find all this by ear, too).

And of course, it will help if you listen to guitar recordings and take careful note of how good players solve varioius technical problems (get one of those gadgets that slow down musical phrases: I still use a Marantz cassette player for this purpose, but I understand they have digital devices now that don't even change the pitch of the original recording). And go to concerts, sit in a forward row and watch as many good players as you possibly can, shamelessly stealing every lick that isn't "nailed down."

A good teacher is helpful too, but as you describe your stage of development, it would be more in the vein of, "Arrange this tune and let me critique what you come up with."

Best of luck with your efforts.
Response by: Harvey Reid
I have two suggestions that I will butt in with...
#1- Do some performing-- either at open mikes or just for friends. Music does not really exist until someone hears it, and I can never be sure if I know a song or if it is right until I have performed it. That's when it becomes real.
#2- Make a tape. Even just a cassette is fine if you don't have something fancier. If the music has life and is really music, this will show up on a tape, and if it is just some exercises or disconnected fragments, this will show up also. Be careful, though-- a bad tape does not mean the music is bad- it might just mean it is a bad tape. The tape test is only accurate if you get a good reading, and it can prove that what you are doing has value. There is not always that much of a relationship between how you think your music sounds and how it really sounds.

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