Phases of Learning


“Here are the five simple secrets to learning to play blues guitar.” Ever see that kind of ad? Sure you have. First off, I don’t think blues players are keeping any secrets; you can see and hear exactly what they are doing. Secondly, any time you see the phrase “learn the secret(s)” you know that somebody is trying to sell you something. As you might have guessed I don’t particularly likes these ads. I have spent many years (decades really) learning to play blues guitar and to have some one try to boil it down to playing “these five simple notes.” makes me crazy. Of course, if you purchase so and so’s “secrets” you might get something out of it, so, go ahead.

    But here are some things I’ve learned over years in playing and teaching that I would like to share:


  1. Playing the guitar is an intellectual, emotional and physical activity. In some ways its like learning a language. Ever meet somebody who has studied French/iItalian/Greek/ or other language intensely but never actually spoken it? They can read the language fluently but if they try to speak to a native they are often not able to be understood. Well, that same thing goes for the guitar. You might understand theoretically how a major scale is built, or how chords are formed from that same scale; but that doesn’t mean you can play it; or express in terms of a musical passage. Just as you need to learn how to physically control your vocal chords to create sounds endemic to a language you need to learn how to manipulate the strings of the guitar to create expressive phrases. People with developed intellects but poor muscle coordination often have a difficult time with the guitar. I’m not saying they are helpless, but they need to understand that they may need more time to develop muscle coordination and strength than someone who has more experience with physically coordinated activities such as sports and tool manipulation.

          Much of blues playing is expressive and the expression is embedded in the slurs and         articulation of notes that are manipulated by our hands. And, yes, this requires certain amount of strength. 


    The progression of learning in my Jamming the Blues Classes goes something like this. Here are five patterns of A minor pentatonic scales. Learn them all and commit them to memory. This is an ongoing process that should continue beyond the framework of a six week class. Next, I show my students how to create musical phrases from portions of those scales patterns. As the word suggests, a phrase is based on the language skills you already possess. If you think of your daily speech as a template for soloing you will bring life and vitality to your playing.

    In our speech we have many different types of phrases: statements, questions(?), exclamations(!), pauses….These phrases will have content and inflection. For instance a whisper implies secrecy. It is barely audible and meant for only a few chosen ears. That soft inflection makes the listener perk up their ears, as if something important is being said. I am often telling many of my students to play louder, but what I’m really asking them to do is play with dynamics.  Play loud, then play soft; alter your attack and you will notice how much your audience is really listening. 

Nothing is worse than a guitarist who knows all their scales: forwards,  backwards, and very fast, but their solos sound like scales: every note has the same attack, voicing, and rhythmic duration. Have you ever listened to a speech or lecture by someone who has a mono-syllabic delivery? The words come out all sounding the same. It could be the most interesting subject in the world but you will strain to follow the speaker because their delivery is putting you to sleep! Public speaking is an art, and so is soloing. You don’t have to be the fastest or most knowledgeable guitarist on the planet to play interesting, listenable solos. It’s a well-worn cliché, but a few well chosen phrases will have more impact than a million notes played with little thought or emotion.



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