Sunday, December 9, 2007

Guitar Practice: The Guitar Hero on Steroids Method

Guitar Hero III players know how much fun it is to play along with your favorite songs given they are now using the original recordings. Playing Guitar Hero gave me the idea to create similar play along tracks for the real guitar.

Any reader of my blog knows by now that I am a fan of the TASCAM Guitar Trainer; a must have piece of gear if you want to improve rapidly. As an aging wannabe rocker I use any advantage I can get. One great feature of the trainer is its Guitar Cancel feature, which enables you to cancel out the guitar on a CD so you can play along. I use this feature to create backing tracks for myself like in Guitar Hero.

You need the guitar trainer; I have the CD-GT1MKII although there is now a newer model out. You also need recording software for your PC or MAC that will accept a line-in signal. This could be as simple as the line-in on your sound card or a USB sound card you add on. All you need to do is run a cable from the line-out on the trainer to the line-in on your sound card.

The TASCAM Trainer has settings for that portion of the stereo region you wish to cancel out as well as fine tuning for the frequency range to reduce. Next step is to review the track you wish to use as your backing track and experiment on it with the cancellation settings. When you have the result you are looking for, it is time to record.

Use your recording software’s features to activate record mode and hit play on the TASCAM. You may need to experiment a bit here with the output level of the TASCAM and the input levels of your recording software to get a strong level without overdriving the input.

In many cases, the stereo region you want to cancel out changes within a song, it is really dependent on what the artist and the recording engineers were going for. What I do in this case is either change the guitar cancel settings on the fly to get one track on my recording software or record each portion of the original track with the appropriate cancel settings so I can connect them back together in my recording software.

The final step I add is to record a count-in at the correct tempo so I can attach it to the beginning of the track and voila; a backing track! You do not get the clam sound though if you miss a note or lick like in Guitar Hero; working on that next.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Guitar Practice: Qualitative Methods to Measure Progress

The qualitative aspect to your playing is where the rubber meets the road and relies on the technical elements you measure with your practice log as well as your ear training and development of tone. The best way to measure progress on qualitative elements to your playing is to record yourself.

Recording oneself works great because the recording will not lie while your ear might. My love of Jimi Hendrix’s version of “Hey Joe” was a catalyst to me starting on the guitar. Every nine months or so, I record this song. This has become a hobby in itself as I record the lead, rhythm, and bass tracks and mix them. The advantage of recording multiple tracks and mixing them is that it becomes brutally apparent if you are not keeping good time with the beat as the mix will be muddy.

Each time I do one of these recordings, I have another reference point. I am on my forth “Hey Joe” now and I check my progress by playing them through oldest to newest. Each time I think the new one is great and the previous one sounds like a cat coughing up a hairball. In other words, you can really detect improvement by recording yourself!

The recording approach has another advantage as you can put it out for critical review to your friends. If they are true friends, they will be honest with you! This is a failsafe approach to avoid your ear trying to lie to you.

You measure progress in everything from golf to skeet shooting. Make sure to do the same in your guitar endeavors and you will see tangible evidence of your efforts.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Guitar Practice: Quantitative Methods to Measure Progress

Learning the guitar has all the attraction of great hobbies: mental and physical challenges plus gadgets. The mental and physical challenges can sometimes create frustration so it is important that you adopt some approaches to measure progress and avoid frustration.

In reality, you make progress with each practice in spite of what you may think; you just need to measure it for self-reinforcement. Keeping a practice log is one way to do it.

A friend of mine shared with me that you do not define progress in how many years you have played guitar but how many hours. I include work on scales, licks, learning a new song, and playing for fun in each practice. A practice log for me is simply recording the results in hours. Some of the key metrics for me:

Time duration spent on scales, licks, songs, and fun
Metronome speed for scales and licks (always trying to increase)
Brief notes on the licks, song, and fun (what was I working on)

I just use a spreadsheet to record the data. Over time, you can graph the key metrics and gain insight into your progress and areas where you need to focus more attention. For example, if you see over time that your speed on scales has gone up 10 beats per minute, you can gauge how much practice time you had to invest to get there and decide how much to invest going forward. The key focus of us aging wannabe rockers is to maximize return on investment. Just seeing that your speed has gone up becomes a visible indicator of progress that you may not register on a day-to-day basis.

The qualitative aspect to your playing is where the rubber meets the road and relies on the technical elements you measure with your practice log as well as your ear training and development of tone. I will cover how to measure that in my next post.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Music Theory: Fret Board Knowledge and your Practice Routine

I incorporated fret board knowledge into my practice routine by choosing a particular key and playing the major pentatonic scales for the I, IV, and V chords of the key in each position on the fret board.

For example, key of G and the major pentatonic scales. Start at fret three of the low E string and ascend the G major pentatonic scale (G Major Form I from the Berklee Method). Next, descend the C major pentatonic scale using Form IV starting at fret 5 of the high e string. From there, ascend using the D major pentatonic scale using Form III. Move up to the next area of the fret board, descend using G major pentatonic Form II, and ascend in C Form V and so on. Choose a different key with each practice and over time you will gain the ability to quickly locate any scale in any key.

The advantage of this approach is you can instantly change keys while staying in the same area of your fret board. This keeps your improvisation a lot smoother. I play on top of “Let’s Jam!”, a CD by Peter Vogl to work on practical application of this improvisational approach. This CD contains a variety of instrumental backing tracks in rock, blues, and jazz styles. It lists the chord progression for each track as well as suggestions on what scales to play in your improvisation. I utilize my TASCAM Guitar trainer to slow down the tempo as needed when I first apply a new technique and gradually speed up until the track is at actual speed.

I have to admit that once you begin improvising using any approach it is thrilling to hear the relationships between the underlying chords and your playing. However, the great thing about this hobby is there is always more to learn. Identifying where you are starting from enables you to use your fret board map and move to the next level.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Music Theory: Learn the Guitar Neck

There is a saying that if you don’t know where you’re starting from, a map won’t help. This is a great analogy for the importance of learning the fret board on your guitar. The dots, birds, or rectangles on the fret board are not just decoration.

In your first lesson, your instructor will cover the fret board, its reference points, and their correlation to the root notes for chords and scales. You can also find millions of sources in stores and the Internet. My problem was I resisted incorporating that knowledge into my practice routine so it was ingrained.

I was getting by in my improvisation efforts; E minor blues for example. I learned each pentatonic form and their reference points on the fret board. However, I wanted to keep improving my technique and make the improvisation more interesting. Whether it is changing the key along with the chord changes, or incorporating other modes such as Mixolydian, it was apparent I needed to buckle down and learn the fret board. It does not work if the chord change is already past before you have found your reference points!

I will outline how I incorporated fret board study in my daily practice routine in my next post.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Holiday Special: Thank you, GuitarWorld!

I started learning the guitar at age 50 as a midlife hobby. Although my family tolerates it, they have not embraced my love of heavy blues and rock.

Then along comes the latest issue of GuitarWorld with a transcription for “Silent Night” using fingerstyle and all of a sudden there is a lot of enthusiasm from the family to the extent they want to join in. The benefit I expected was to explore learning fingerstyle and received in addition something beyond tolerance for my hobby!

There is something for everyone in this publication from the teenage shredder to aging wannabe rockers.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Learn to Play the Guitar: Techniques You Can’t Do Without – Alternate Picking

The guitar is a great hobby to pick up in middle age or any age. In writing these posts, I try to focus on things I wish I had known about earlier or am glad I learned about when I did. One of those “glad I learned about when I did” techniques is Alternate Picking.

My instructor pushed me on alternate picking right off after I outlined that my interest areas were blues, rock, and improvisation. Alternate picking is just a two for the price of one thing. You pick the string on the down stroke as well as the upstroke, twice as fast in theory, right? If you have any plans to learn lead guitar you need to work on this technique and no better time to learn it than to start on it day one.

The day one routine my instructor gave me was 16th note pentatonic scale runs with a metronome. It seems very awkward at first but after a week or so, you will never want to go back. Once you become comfortable at a given tempo, ramp up another 10 beats per minute and go for it. If you incorporate this type of exercise into your practice routine, you will get your speed up and whip out those facemelter licks in no time. Really!