[Newsletter] Where are you in the wavy learning curve?
Advice from Charlie Hunter; Letting musical devices guide your playing
Something to think about
Where are you in the wavy learning curve?
The learning curve for guitar is pretty wavy.
Everyone’s is different, but I’ve observed these 4 distinct sections in different cases: 3-6 month technique climb, 6-12 month honeymoon period, 1-3 year confusion period, and 3+ years of either slowly getting better or plateauing. The timeframes are just rough estimates, but the phases are there. It’s helpful to know which phase you’re in, how to beat the struggle, and that it’s normal to feel stuck.
So here’s what I’ve seen. Do these categories apply to you?
3-6 month technique climb
At the very beginning, learning guitar sucks.
It’s not intuitive, your fingers don’t want to cooperate, and every single thing you play needs to be though about with great focus. However, with regular practice guitarists in this category start to see improvements more easily and quickly. Maybe you start to play chords with better transitions or maybe you learn a song or two. I’ve noticed guitarists in this category not spend a lot of time thinking about music so much as just trying to build their technique and get the motions down.
Why it’s difficult: it takes a lot of effort and focus to do even the simplest thing. All this effort causes a lot of people to quit.
What to do about it: keep practicing regularly because once things start to click, you’ll be able to improve much more quickly. Try to live in the zone where you’re able to play some things comfortably and, to improve, you’re working on something just out of your reach (yet still attainable).
6-12 month honeymoon period
Once you can physically play the guitar somewhat automatically, you’re happy.
You can play songs you like, maybe you’re messing around with improvisation, learning solos, getting into theory. Everything comes together for a little while and you just enjoy the act of playing guitar - this is why you started. You still try to learn new things, but you’re happy to play your favourite kind of music and maybe let practice fall to the back burner a little bit.
Why it’s difficult: there’s not much to worry about if you’re in this phase. I remember coming home from school and playing the same old songs over and over. It was exciting. But, no matter how much you like rehashing the same thing, you’ll bored toward the end of this phase eventually.
What to do about it: try to find the balance between enjoying what you’re playing and still finding new music to enjoy. Not even music to learn or play, but just keeping your tastes and ears open. If you can avoid getting stuck on something you’re bored with and no ideas of where to go, that’s ideal.
1-3 year confusion period
You’ve reached a point where everything you learned up to this point has become stale.
It’s no problem though. Back to the drawing board. Except this time, you’re not an absolute beginner. You go online to find out what you should work on, but there’s so much advice you get overwhelmed. You pick away at this, dabble at that, and spend a long time stuck in the weeds. You don’t know how to get to where you want to be because you don’t know where you want to go.
Why it’s difficult: you’re at the point in your guitar playing life where you need to make decisions about things, but you’re missing some essential information. You’re not so worried about how to play, but what to play.
What to do about it: I end up writing a lot about this category in a weekly newsletter. You can check it out here. To boil it down, know what your North Star is when it comes to playing guitar, have a few different projects on the go at once, and try to learn from first principles.
3+ years of slowly getting better or plateauing
Depending on how you navigate the confusion period, you’ve either figured it out or you’ve plateaued.
To plateau has negative connotations, but I don’t think it’s negative at all. If you’re happy with your guitar playing experience and don’t feel the need to stress out over improving, that’s great. Many people, though, want to improve their skills, enlarge their repertoire, learn different styles, or any other number of things. When these latter people hit a plateau, they went wrong somewhere in the previous phase.
Why it’s difficult: after a few years of playing, you’ll have developed skills to the point where you can learn more easily, but you won’t see the drastic leaps in improvement like in the early days.
What to do about it: accept that there’s no rush. Unless you need to learn guitar now to put food on the table, it’s okay to improve just a little over the course of your life. Try to keep an open mind and enjoy the process rather than the destination.
Something to watch
Charlie Hunter is one of my favourite musicians.
It’s fun to hear what my influences think about and how they describe their approach to their instruments. It’s enlightening. Here are some tidbits from this interview with Charlie.
The guitar is a vernacular instrument. I think he means a lot of the language of guitar playing comes from listening and interacting with others rather than from books. A lot of guitarists immerse themselves in the language to learn, while people who play other instruments might rely more heavily on structured lessons and standard procedure.
Getting feedback from other players and audiences is essential to musical growth. Instead of practicing in isolation for the next 10 years, it’s better to bring yourself out into the world. “The world is part of the equation.”
If you’re doing it right, nobody notices. Subtle technical skill is underrated - from playing in time and in the pocket, to note choice and phrasing.
If you want to learn to groove, just learn a James Brown tune fully. If you want to learn to solo through different chord changes, learn a saxophone solo from a Ray Charles tune. Go to the original source and see how perfectly fluent musicians do it.
Something to practice
How can you start making the decisions necessary to interpret a piece of music?
In last week’s Something to practice section, I talked about learning to play like a singer by figuring out a vocal line on your guitar and mimicking the effects. One of the biggest benefits of doing this is getting out of your comfort zone. Instead of feeling stuck playing the same things all the time, you leave the guitaristic part of your brain and enter a different part.
In other words, you leave your usual habits and patterns at the door and get used to letting musical devices dictate what to practice instead.
You know, musical devices - all those Italian words you hear all the time.
Things like vibrato, tremolo, legato, and staccato.
Creating exercises based on these qualities is sometimes more fruitful than learning a new scale or strumming pattern. A solid technique based on these effects lets you get more music out of what you already know.
A big part of bridging the gap between beginner and intermediate is making interpretive decisions.
Let the melody guide your decisions
One of the most important musical devices that a skilled musician of any instrument takes advantage of is dynamics.
Dynamics are a good place to start because the natural lilt of the melody can guide you. In the video from last week, Rachael Price expertly demonstrates how it’s done - she doesn't fight with the natural lilt of the melody.
She starts soft. She lets the pitch of the notes guide her, but not control her. When she sings higher, she lets herself go a little louder. When she sings lower, she gets a little quieter. It takes a great amount of control to sing more bassy notes at a quiet volume. There's a risk of the note being unsupported and causing it to waver. It's much easier to support notes at a louder volume. Price makes the low, quiet notes sound effortless.
She is also thinking section by section.
By the time she gets to the first chorus (1:05), she straddles the volume between medium soft and medium loud, letting the intensity of the narrative climb a little bit. She still has a whole song to get through so she doesn't want to give it away too early and have no place to climb later. She needs to slowly build the volume and energy toward the climax.
Over the next two verses (1:38 - 2:38), she retains some of the energy built up in the previous section. These two verses climb from soft to medium loud. Finally in the second chorus (2:38 - 3:11), she signifies the climax of the song by straddling volumes between medium loud and loud. This helps deliver the lines in a raw emotional way not yet heard.
Try this with your guitar
Get out of scale, chord, and strum world and into interpretive world.
Think about your music on a micro level (note to note, or “word to word”) and on a macro level (section to section). If you end up following the advice from last week and doing all the work of learning a vocal line, take it to the next level.
Make a project out of it - something with a beginning, middle, and end while letting some musical devices guide you.