Getting Out Of A Strum Rut Part 2

In Part 1 of this article, we discussed how keeping your hand in motion is key to strumming, and learned how to play along with a couple of basic strums.  The standard strum that I used as an example, can be played more than one way, however!  So let’s review what the first way sounded like:

This time, we’re going to put the emphasis on the DOWN stroke and have a shorter up stroke, and that changes the feel of the strum entirely.  Take a listen and play along if you like:

This gives the same strum a swing or “country” feel. Notice that I’ve drawn the up strokes shorter to help you remember to play them more quickly. Play along with it for awhile if you need to, in order to get the feel right. Then go back and play the first one so you can duplicate the difference yourself and get a sense of how to achieve it.

When you’re listening to a song that has an acoustic guitar strum in it, you’ll often notice that the strum doesn’t necessarily stay consistent throughout the song. Sometimes that’s because once a strum pattern has been established, sometimes the guitar player will change it just slightly here and there. That’s a natural way of playing. But often a strum pattern will actually be longer than one measure.  Here’s an example from a 70′s song by the band America called “Horse With No Name“. First I’ll just show you the whole strum:

Horse With No Name Strum

Notice now the first measure or bar has our regular pattern with a swing feel, so the up strokes are shorter.  The second measure, however, has more up strokes than down strokes…we actually skip two down strokes to complete the pattern.  Confused yet?  🙂

Even if you can’t quite play it yet, have a listen to the strum below:

You will probably recognize the Em chord, but may not know D 6/9, so I’m going to diagram it here:

This chord is easy to achieve from an Em if you use your first and second finger;  all you have to do is move the first finger up to the 2nd fret of the 6th string and the 2nd finger down to the 2nd fret of the 3rd string.  If you’re just trying the strum out on your own, however, I’d suggest you try it with ONLY the Em chord until you are proficient at it.  Then introduce the D 6/9 at the second measure.  You’ll be amazed how many people know what this song is by only hearing that strum! You can find out more about that strum and playing along to it in my video blog here.

And there are many other songs out there with distinctive strums…with some songs you can probably tell what the song is by hearing only the first few seconds of it!  For instance, the Oasis song “Wonderwall” has a two-measure long strum that also makes it quite recognizable.

The strum is most noticeable in the first part of the video.  The strum is very quick, employing 1/16th beats, so you might even think that it’s 4 measures long, but it is actually only two.  Listen to it a few times and see if you can figure out what the strum is!  I dare you 🙂

There are a lot of guitar players out there who don’t pay as much attention to strumming as they do the chords or notes and scales.  But the fact is that strumming is a crucial part of learning guitar, and learning it well.

I hope you’ve learned something out of this article.  If you have, please let me know by leaving a note below!


Getting Out Of A Strum Rut, Part 1

One of the main problems many people have with playing guitar over a period of time, is always resorting to the same strum for pretty much every song.  After awhile, even songs that should sound very different, don’t!

If this is something you’re experiencing, then let’s go back to some basics and see what we can do to get you out of the rut.

First of all, many people will strum in an inefficient manner.  Rather than keeping the strumming arm in constant motion, they will pause at the up stroke or at the down stroke in order to achieve a certain groove.  When you strum, do you ever pause your arm?  This usually becomes part of the problem;  you haven’t learned to strum correctly! Hit the play button on the video below;  as simple as it seems, try strumming it.  This is a G chord. If you’re doing it right, you’ll notice there are no gaps and your arm is in constant motion:

Count along with the numbers underneath.  This is a full bar of a 4/4 (or common time) strum.

Sometimes counting helps, sometimes it gets in the way, but for now, just count as you strum and if the strum is too quick at first, do it on your own and go at a pace that feels comfortable for you.

Okay, now we’re going to look at the strum again, but with a small change. Hit the play button on the following video:

When it plays you’ll see that the first down stroke is the same, but the first up stroke is in grey, dotted lines.  This is what I call a “ghost strum”.  What you are doing now is  strumming the same pattern, but leaving that second up stroke out.  You still move your arm, but don’t strum the strings as you come up.  You’ll notice that you are leaving the same “space”…you’re not rushing to the 2nd down strum, but moving your arm up at the same speed as you do for the rest of the strum.  You need to think of your arm like a metronome or the pendulum on a grandfather clock;  it keeps a consistent movement, up and down, up and down.

If you’re getting it, you can already tell that this is a strumming groove that you’ve probably heard before, or something similar to it.  When you get used to it, speed it up a little and it’ll sound even better.

Now, if you leave some of the other strokes out, then you get different grooves.  Here are a couple of examples:

If you try them out and then speed them up a little, you can see how they each create different grooves!  Now there are different things you can do to a strum to give it a different feel, such as emphasizing the strokes differently.  In Part 2, we’ll discuss this emphasis, plus we’ll take a look at strums that you might recognize that go even further.  With all that you’ve learned so far, however, you can already see all of the strumming possibilities.  Keep practising!


Those Hard-To-Play Chords

Transitioning from one chord to another is enough work, but when the chord you are moving to is particularly difficult to play, here’s a trick to help you get better at playing it. Always be patient…learning takes time!

Finding The Right Teacher

I have been teaching since 1989, and I can tell you, when I first started teaching, I wasn’t very good at it!

It isn’t that I didn’t have the knowledge. I did. I had been playing guitar for many years. But what I learned over time is that knowing something doesn’t mean you can teach it. I became a better teacher over time because all of my students taught me!

You may have found a friend or family member who plays guitar and asked them to teach you. Maybe it worked out, but chances are it didn’t. Maybe you gave up because of that experience. Unless your teacher has taught before, don’t expect them to know what they’re doing. Teaching is a SEPARATE knowledge from the ability to play.

I always recommend that you interview teachers before you decide to go for it. Here are some things to consider:

  1. What kind of music do you want to play? Do you want to play blues riffs? Jazz guitar? Do you just want to learn to play some of your favourite songs for yourself or around the campfire? Or maybe you’re interested in classical music. Most teachers cannot teach all of these genres, and specialize in one or two of these areas. Just ask!
  2. Teachers who teach out of music stores aren’t necessarily better because of their place of employment. Lots of teachers teach privately. Look on craigslist or usedvictoria (or whatever city you are in). Do a Google search for guitar teachers in your area. Ask friends. Word of mouth is a great way to find someone good.
  3. Some cities and towns have recreation programs that include guitar classes. Again, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get the best teacher, but sometimes learning in a group is a little less intimidating, and even more fun because you’re learning with others.
  4. Some teachers have a set agenda on how and what they want to teach you. Others make it more your decision. My method is to give everyone a list (and it’s a huge one!) of every song that I teach. I get them to pick out songs they are interested in and write down anything they’re interested in learning that isn’t on the list. But for absolute beginners, I usually have a couple of songs that I start with just to give a new student some basics. Ask the teacher how she/he teaches when you first interview them.
  5. There are teachers out there who are willing to come to your home, but be prepared to pay a little extra for that. And speaking of payment, as with anything, cheaper isn’t always the best. Look around at a few prices to get a sense of what the going rate is. And ask what their cancellation policy is too.

You should know within about a month whether or not guitar is for you. And if it’s not, that’s okay! We all have to put our toes in the water first to check it out! Your teacher should not try and commit you to more than that at the beginning. So when you first meet, mention that you’d like to try it out for a month to see if it’s a good fit. That way, if you’re not comfortable or happy with the teacher, you can find someone else.

And I want to emphasize that again. Not all teachers are created equal! I hope for you to have a good experience, but if you have a bad one, please don’t give up! Playing guitar should be a very joyful part of your life.

Good luck!


Why You Can’t Always Learn From a YouTube Video

I often get new students who have tried and failed at learning guitar by watching YouTube videos. I have a couple of videos myself, so I’m certainly not against the idea of learning this way! In fact, many budding guitarists benefit from the generosity of players who demonstrate songs and techniques by video.

However, it is something akin to learning something by reading a book; some can, and others are only more confused. So don’t be discouraged if YouTube videos are not making you a guitar virtuoso! Now I will explain why.

First of all, you might be a beginner and not up on the “lingo”. A video can’t look at you and assess how much you know. So if you simply don’t understand the terminology used, or if a demonstration goes too quickly, it can be a complete turn off.

Secondly, those who can play, can’t necessarily teach. They may say that they are going to show you how to play something and go ahead and play it, and explain nothing! While some might be able to pick up on what they are doing, many can’t.

Thirdly, you may not realize what you need to learn first in terms of which videos to watch. If you want to learn to play solos, you need to learn scales…if you want to play your favourite Neil Young song, you need to learn chords and some strumming techniques. Again, videos can’t assess what you know, or don’t know. If you don’t know how to swim, don’t jump in the deep end!

Videos can also be wrong. When I say “wrong”, I also mean that people tend to play their own versions of songs, for instance, and it doesn’t quite sound like the original. You may have already come across that in terms of looking at chords and tabs at some of the more popular sites dedicated to it. When you try it out, it doesn’t really sound right, but you might blame it on yourself rather than on what the tab or video is showing you.

If you are a guitar enthusiast, videos can be a great way to augment your learning experience. But don’t consider yourself a failure if you are having trouble learning how to play from them! Therefore, I always encourage getting an instructor or taking some guitar classes so you can learn at a pace that works for you.


Changing Strings

If you’ve got an older guitar and you don’t know when the last time the strings were changed on it, you might consider buying a set and learning how to change them.  Or if you’ve had your new guitar for awhile and you need to learn how to change strings, I’ll give you a few tips.  These tips are primarily for acoustic guitar.

First of all, people always question “when?”  There are many different opinions on this one.  Some people suggest if you’re playing regularly, change them every couple of months.  I don’t think that’s really necessary and I don’t even change them that often!  I met a performing guitarist once who changed them every day!  The reason he did was because he liked the sound of new strings   Well, I guess a performer has the right to change strings as many times as he/she wants.  Luthiers (people who make stringed instruments) will have varying opinions too.

A good sign that your strings need to be changed is when one of them breaks!  But you don’t have to wait that long.  If you have a classical or spanish guitar with nylon strings, they rarely break anyway.  Steel strings break more often.  Usually you will see that the areas of the string that you touch most, where you play chords or notes, will get a little darker.  Over time, the oil and skin from your fingers and the dust from a room will start to gather especially on the wound strings, the fatter ones.  You’ll see the effect of time on the fat strings first.  It dulls the sound of the string when you play it, although you won’t really notice because it happens so gradually.  As soon as you put a new string on, you’ll notice the difference right away!

Most of the time you can buy a new set of strings from your local music store for about $10 or $12…some are a little more expensive.  Talk to somebody at the counter about buying strings if you’re not sure what you need for your guitar.   For instance, a classical guitar needs different strings from a steel string guitar.

Different guitars behave differently with certain types of strings.  There are usually four gauges;  heavy, medium, light and extra light.  I wouldn’t recommend heavy or extra light if you are new to playing, only because they can really change the feel of your guitar.  Medium strings are probably okay, light gauge strings tend to bend more easily and sometimes (SOMEtimes) will make a guitar a little easier to play.

I am qualifying that only because there are so many different guitars out there and there are many factors that effect your guitar playing.  If you talk to someone at your guitar store and tell them what make of guitar you have, that might determine which gauge to buy.
When you have finally decided on a set, the next question becomes how to change them.  The following description is MY way, and below there is a YouTube posted by a luthier who will give you some additional tips.

1.  Tools to have handy:  needle-nose pliers, a soft cloth and a set of new strings, of course!

2.  Before you touch the old strings, look carefully and maybe even take a picture of how they are attached from the bridge, up to the head stock (where the tuning pegs are).  Which way are they wound around the pegs?  They should be wound from the inside out so that when you turn the pegs, they loosen and tighten properly, as indicated by the arrows:

3.  Personally, I DO NOT remove all the strings first!  I know that many do, but a tip I got years ago from a luthier was that there is a certain amount of tension created by all of the strings pulling tight on the neck of the guitar, that gets changed when you suddenly take all the strings off.  Whether or not that is the gospel truth, I don’t know, but to be safe I’ve always removed them one at a time.  The luthier in the video below removes three at a time, so I imagine that’s probably quite safe too.  So I take one string off (it could be the high E or the low E string, doesn’t matter) and then replace it with the new one, and then move on to the next.

4.  Hopefully you are familiar with the tuning pegs (the part that you turn to tune the string) enough to know which way to turn it!  I loosen the string as much as possible, and then fiddle with the  end of string so that I get it off the peg.  I will often actually cut it once it has become quite loose.  Then, if you have bridge pins, those rounded pins that hold the other end of theguitar string into the bridge, I’ll carefully start pulling it out with my fingers.  If it’s in there too tight, I’ll try to push the string in a bit to loosen it.  Sometimes that works, sometimes not.  As a last resort, I will take a soft cloth and wrap it around the pin and use needle nose pliers to pull it out.  Once it’s out, the ball end of the string can be pulled out.

5.  Once you have the old string off, you might want to dust along the areas of the guitar that you can’t quite reach when the string is in place.

6.  Pull the new string out of its packaging…make sure it’s the right one!  Sometimes they are marked by the string name (E or 6th, A or 5th, D or 4th, G or 3rd, B or 2nd, E or 1st) or sometimes they are marked by the colour of the pin ball (D’Addario strings are distinguished this way), or sometimes simply by the width dimension of the string.  If you’re not sure, they are often in the right order in your packaging, or you can Google it to make sure you’re using the correct string to replace the old one.

7.  You’ll notice the bridge pins have a groove on one side.  This is where the string fits when you place it back in the bridge:

8.  Insert the ball part of the string in the hole in the bridge, and then secure it by inserting thebridge pin, groove side facing towards the sound hole.  Here is the correct position of the ball and bridge pin from a cross section view:

You see how the pin holds the ball of the string down below?  If you want an even more detailed view, I’ve embedded a YouTube video below so you can get a better idea of how it works.

9.  Once the string is secured at the bridge end, you’ll need to stick it through the hole on the appropriate peg on the headstock.  I usually pull it all the way through the hole and then loosen it back about two or three inches.  Now you start winding.  My favourite part.  Not.  🙂

10.  Remember to wind it in the right direction!  The strings are wound from the inside out, as shown in the diagram above.

11. Clip off the end of the string with your needle nose pliers, and bend the end in towards the headstock so you don’t prick yourself!  This is also demonstrated in the video below.

12.  Once the strings are all replaced, you’ll need to tune the guitar with a tuner or the one you see a link to at the top of this blog.

It won’t stay in tune easily for a day or two, so you will have to keep tuning it until the strings get properly stretched.  However, you’ll notice how bright the strings sound compared to your old ones!

That’s why people like to change their strings often…just to have that sound.

One note:  some guitars, like Ovations, don’t have bridge pins at all, the string is simply inserted into the end of the bridge.  I still have an old Ovation and it’s much easier to re-string than my Larivee.

For a more detailed description, here’s the video:

Kids ‘n Guitars

[NOTE: I no longer teach children under the age of 15, but I definitely have some advice for those of you who have children who have shown an interest in playing!]

Teaching kids to play guitar is a whole different experience from teaching adults.  Over the years I’ve taught many children, with varied results!  One thing you have to keep in mind with children is the fact that they have shorter attention spans  .  I tend to take little breaks from playing with them to ask them questions, just so they don’t get too frustrated or restless.  Then we get back to the music.  On the other hand, kids are little learning sponges and they don’t tend to be as hard on themselves or have the higher expectations of themselves that adults do.

If you are considering giving your kids music lessons, here are some things to consider:

1.  If possible, just try it out for a month.  Some kids just aren’t musically inclined, or they simply aren’t interested!  It’s not a failure…there may  be a time later on in their lives when they would like to try again.  If however, you get through a month and your child is still interested, then you can make a longer commitment.  Some schools or organizations want you to commit to a whole year at the very beginning.  You know your child best…can they stick to something for a year?  If you think that it’s just a matter of MAKING them, consider the fact that they may end up having a pretty negative feeling about music for a long time if they are forced to do it that way.  I have taught many adults who experienced exactly that in their childhood, and it took them years to recover.  I imagine some never do.

2. Okay, so you’re ready to give them lessons…but what about an instrument?  If it is at all possible, try to rent one first.  I recommend this to adults too.  This way, you are not stuck with an instrument you don’t want if you child doesn’t continue.  A lot of music stores will also put your rent towards the purchase of an instrument later on…so you can’t lose!  Most guitars rent for $20-$40 dollars a month, other instruments vary.

3. Practice time!  If your child is taking serious music lessons, including theory and sight reading, then you should check with the instructor as to how much they expect your child to practice.  I teach pretty simple and basic songs and don’t include much in the way of theory.  If a child sits down for 10-15 minutes a day and plays, I’m happy!  Leave the guitar out where your child will remember to play it.  Make practice time at the same time every day, which will make it a habit.  Some kids have no trouble practicing because they are loving it!  But others need a little encouragement.  If, after a period of time, your child starts to grumble about practicing, unless you are grooming them to be a virtuoso…let it go.  If they don’t come around again, consider giving up lessons for awhile.  I don’t believe in forcing your child into music lessons!!!  I can’t stress that enough!

4. I allow parents to sit in on the lesson if they want to.  I don’t care what the teacher says, you should be allowed to do this!  This will not only give you a sense of how your child is doing with the instructor (and how the instructor is doing with your child!), but it will also give you an idea of what they are working on so you can encourage your child at home.  If you would rather not join your child, that’s okay too.  And there are some kids who have behavioural problems when their parents are around, so don’t do it if that’s the case.  You don’t have to sit in on every lesson either, just once in awhile if you prefer.  It’s always good to know what the teacher is like with your child at any rate.

5.  Don’t be afraid to switch teachers.  Sometimes your child and a teacher might not click, and the last thing you want is for your child to think that all teachers are the same.  Obviously, they are not!  Interview a few of them if you have time, to see which one your child favours.  Most teachers will be willing to meet with you first and explain their methods and give your child the opportunity to get to meet them.

Music can turn out to be a life-long love, especially playing an instrument.  Don’t be too discouraged if your child loses interest at some point.  They are continually changing and growing, so of course their interests will change too.  But giving them some lessons at the very beginning will plant a positive seed that they may sow later on in their lives and will be grateful for!

Onward & Upward

If you have visited this blog before, you’ll probably notice a slight difference — there are very few posts! That’s because my original Guitar Blog disappeared completely from the server of the web host. Like an idiot, I didn’t back it up properly, and so I lost everything. Needless to say, I’ve changed hosts and am now in the process of building everything up again.

So I thank you for your patience as I gradually re-create as many of my original posts as I can remember!