Diggin’ A Little Deeper

Yesterday evening I had my second lesson with John. I’m feeling like now we’re really getting into it. I’m sure from his perspective we’re just getting started, but to me it’s like we’ve already jumped into the deep end.

First, we briefly ran through “All of Me” together. While he played the lead lines, I haltingly played through the chord progression he had written out for me last time. He gave his approval at the progress I had made, and then we moved on to some listening exercises in which I had to identify by ear the differences between major, minor, diminished, and augmented chords played on a CD. I did pretty well except for one D minor chord, which I was pretty sure was augmented. Even when he played it back for me I couldn’t quite grasp it. Weird that just that one chord seemed to throw me.

The biggest part of our time was spent with him working out and showing me a chord solo for “All of Me.” That is, a combination of chords and single note melodic lines to be played as a lead. Sort of the jazzy counterpart to the “Carter scratch” in old-time and bluegrass music. In the same key as the previous progression, this little lead part nevertheless contains only one of the same chord forms as the progression I’ve been practicing. Again, we’re just moving right along.

To finish up, we cracked the cover on A Modern Method For Guitar. We played through several of the first exercises together, and John marked the pages I should concentrate on for the next few weeks. Sometime in September, he says, we’ll probably be ready to move into Chapter 2 “where the training wheels come off.”

Spend, Spend, Spend

A few months ago, when I began to really think seriously about re-focusing my energies on the guitar, money quickly started slipping out of my pockets.

The first thing I did was re-subscribe to Flatpicking Guitar magazine. I had been as subscriber for a few years when the magazine was first launched. At some point I let the subscription lapse, and then when we moved from Pennsylvania to New Jersey in 2003, I threw away the issues I had saved. I knew at the time that I was going to regret it, but in the general discombobulation of moving my judgement was off and out they went. Now here I was, regretting it as expected, so when I re-subbed I also ordered a copy of every single back issue. Twelve years’ worth.

And while I was clicking around on the FGM website, I discovered Tortis picks from Red Bear Trading Company. According to what I read, these picks mimicked the feel and tone of real tortoise shell. I never actually played with real tortoise shell picks, but I had heard all my life about what a perfect material it was. The final straw this particular day was the endorsement from Jack Lawrence, one of my favorite flatpickers and longtime performing partner of Doc Watson. I knew that Jack used tortoise picks, and according to his testimonial on the site there was no appreciable difference in tone and feel between the Tortis picks and the real thing. So there went another $20.

To my mind this is my most extravagant purchase so far. I’m accustomed to spending considerably less than a dollar apiece for picks, and subsequently loosing them under the seat of my car and/or washing them in my pants pockets. To think about laying out a twenty for a single pick sort of blows my mind, but I did it. Luckily, I love the thing. It’s quite a bit thicker than the Clayton picks I’ve normally used in the past, but after using it for a couple of days I don’t notice that any more. But the difference in tone is noticeable every time I play. Remarkably different. I’ll never go back.

Anyway, back to the shopping list…

Past experience showed me that I was not very good at using a metronome. It’s not so much a timing problem as a rhythm problem. I can keep pretty good time. I just don’t always feel the beat in the same way most people do. For example, I tend to tap my foot on the opposite beat that everybody else taps. I don’t speed up or slow down so much as I accent in the wrong place. This makes using a metronome kind of confusing to me.

Of course that’s the strongest reason of all to get one and use it. The things that are the hardest to do are exactly the things you need to practice the most, ya know? So I ordered up a metronome.

During our phone conversation when I set up my guitar lessons, John told me to bring manuscript paper. I went online to order that, and as usual I found a few other items to “Add To Cart” while I was on Amazon.

A paperback copy of Clapton’s Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build The Perfect Instrument. And a CD of River Suite for Two Guitars, the album of duets John recorded with Tony Rice. I had the vinyl album when it was new, and later on a cassette copy when we got rid of all our LPs, but I’d never gotten the disc. Oh, and a copy of Zen Guitar, a book I read about in the FLATPICK-L archives. Finally, while I was at it, some plastic inserts for three-ring binders to store all those magazine back issues.

No sooner had these items arrived than I went to my first lesson. John suggested I look for a good songbook with some jazz standards to work with. Returning to Amazon, I discovered pretty quickly that I can’t shop for songbooks without actually holding them in my hands. But there’s plenty of other stuff there that I can shop for. I went ordered A Modern Method for Guitar, written by William Leavitt, Chairman of the Guitar Department at Berklee College of Music when John studied there. John had mentioned that this is the book he works with for “serious” theory study. He hasn’t actually told me to get it, but I figure it can’t hurt to have it. I also ordered Music Theory for Dummies and a copy of John’s solo CD, Further Adventures.

Finally, today at lunchtime I walked down to Guitar Center and found the huge Just Jazz Real Book, with lead sheets to 250 songs. I’m thinking this will keep me busy for some time to come.

I believe I have everything I need for awhile now, but really, what do I know?

Just Like Starting Over

My left arm and fingers must be wondering what’s going on. Aside from the usual sore fingertips that always come when you play more than you’re used to, which I completely expected, my left forearm is in an uproar. I believe it’s because I’m using my fourth (pinky) finger more than ever.

I’ve managed to carve out at least an hour for practice every day since before I started lessons this past Tuesday. After making the initial arrangements for lessons back at the beginning of the month, I started to practice very regularly. I hadn’t played very much at all recently, so I knew I’d be rusty. I also wanted to get a practice regimen established ahead of time so that when the lessons began I could focus entirely on the material at hand.

Back in the mid-’90’s, a friend and I went to a Steve Kaufman flatpicking workshop outside of Philadelphia. Over and above all the guitar instruction, what really struck me most at the time was what he had to say about how to practice. When you hear that old saw about how it’s not “practice makes perfect,” but rather that “perfect practice makes perfect,” as far as I can tell they’re talking about Steve Kaufman.

So I set myself to following as much of his advice as I can. I arranged a little space in our guest room where I can leave all my materials out and at-the-ready. I bought a metronome (as well as an assortment of books and CDs — sometimes it’s hard to stop clicking at Amazon.com), and I got to work. In accordance with Steve, I go through a brief warmup period of strumming just to loosen up and get the blood flowing. Then I spend the first half of my practice period playing and tweaking songs and tunes I already know. The last half of the session is for learning new material. Kaufman’s methods go much deeper than that, of course, with methodology directed at exactly how to work on your material and such, but you get the idea. The long and short of it is I got myself into a structured, methodical, logical practice habit.

Then along came the chord forms and exercises from John Carlini.

Practicing an hour every day with the second half of the session given over to new material means I’m working on these chords for a half-hour stretch. Of course I’m seeing progress after just these few days. In fact, I’m already starting to feel comfortable with most of the forms. But it’s a workout in every sense of the word. An hour or two after each session, I can feel it in my left arm; that hurt-but-it’s-a-good-hurt feeling  deep in the muscles. I suppose it’s possible that I felt the same things back in the day when I first started playing, but I don’t recall it.

I can see where this is headed, getting myself accustomed to and comfortable with the entire fingerboard, which is precisely what I need. In many ways, though, it seems like I’m learning a completely different instrument.

I’ve Got A Lot To Learn

Today I had my first guitar lesson with John Carlini.  I got there early, traffic being much lighter than I had expected.  It felt a little intrusive, showing up early for an appointment at a guy’s home.  If it were an office I’d aim to be early, but at a person’s house … I dunno.  He seemed perfectly fine with it, so I guess that’s that.

Perhaps it was just another manifestation of the general nervousness I had about the whole situation, as I mentioned in a previous entry in this blog.  And that wasn’t the last of it.

John led me into his home studio. While we tuned our guitars and got set up, we talked in more detail about the things we had discussed in our phone conversation.  I was kind of settling in to the situation when he said, “Well, play me something.”

Of course I knew before I ever got there that I’d need to play something.  But now that it was actually happening I found myself looking around the room at all sorts of records, posters, and photos of all these great players.  Not the least of which, of course, is Tony Rice.  Pictures of Tony Rice with John.  By the time I finished flubbing my way through a few bars of St. Anne’s Reel, I could literally feel the sweat trickling down my back.

Either John didn’t notice or he’s accustomed to it, because he just went right on about the lesson at hand. Jumping off from another tune I played a little of, Jack Lawrence‘s “Ten Miles to Deep Gap,” we went into a discussion of the C scale, the chords based out of the scale, and a great exercise based out of it that can be used to work on tone, precision, quickness, and to acquaint myself with moving up the neck.  He told me more in that first 15 minutes than I could digest in a month.

But that wasn’t all.  He gave me a lead sheet for “All Of Me,” and wrote out a bunch of jazz chords for it. One of my goals in these lessons is to move away from the first position and learn the whole fingerboard. These chords are all over the place, and not an open string in the bunch.  This is step one on my journey up the neck.

Even having arrived early, I was 15 minutes late leaving.  It was great fun for me, regardless of the fact that I feel somewhat overwhelmed.  This is going to be a blast.

Man, What A Guitar Shop!

For weeks now I’ve been scouring the web trying to figure out where to go and what to look for in my new guitar search.  I’ve registered with two or three new (to me) online guitar communities, looked through old issues of Flatpicking Guitar magazine, etc., etc.  I’ve read up on guitar makers like Gallagher, Collings, Huss & Dalton, Froggy Bottom, and others. Time to go out into the world a strike a few chords on some actual instruments.

It happens that we live only about 20 miles away from Mandolin Brothers, one of the country’s most respected shops for acoustic guitars.  I’d never been, but I’d read about them for years.  With my wife, Suzy, navigating by my trusty MapQuest printout, we headed out for Staten Island.

The building is so nondescript we almost drove right past it.  This is probably a good thing for a place that routinely houses entire rooms full of guitars with price tags running up to $20k and higher, but I had my eye out for the usual storefront display you so often see, with guitars hanging in rows behind huge plate glass windows.  Just as we were about to pass it, Suzy saw the name on the building and I pulled in to the small gravel parking lot on the side.

Inside, past the front office desks piled with papers and books, is a guitar lover’s dream world. Room upon room filled floor to ceiling with guitars and other fretted instruments of every description.  I’ve been in a lot of guitar stores, but I’ve never seen anything quite like this.  I didn’t even know where to start.

Of course there were people there to guide me.  One of the guys asked if I had anything specific in mind, or if I was just browsing.  After a fairly short back-and-forth, he put a new Martin D-35 in my hands.  The feel of the neck was outstanding, and it sounded like a cannon.  I think people here in Maplewood could probably hear it.  And the price tag was half what I had given him as my upper limit!  When was the last time a salesperson of any kind offered you a product that was half what they knew you were willing to spend?  I could learn to like this place.

After noodling around on that guitar for a bit and gazing at a few others while Suzy checked out the composite guitars, we made our way into the small-builders room.  I messed with a Gallagher Doc Watson model (too boxy-sounding), a couple of Santa Cruz models (not significantly different than my own D-28, to my ears), and a wonderful baritone guitar, the maker of which escapes my brain now.  I imagine I played 12 or 15 different guitars in that room, none better than the Collings D3.

I had never played a Collings, and didn’t much care for the first one I picked up.  But the D3 was out of this world.  Bass notes that rattled my chest, but at the same time very clear mids and crisp highs.  Great volume and responsiveness all up and down the neck.  This was quite clearly the best-sounding guitar I have ever personally played.

I could very easily have ended my search right then and there.  But I determined in my mind before leaving home that no matter how much I liked whatever I found today, I was not going to make a purchase.  I intend to play LOTS of guitars before I settle on one.  Perhaps that means this one will be gone my the time I’m ready to buy, but that’s a chance I have resolved to take.

But right now I’m hoping it stays there for awhile.

Getting Up Off My Butt

Yesterday morning I spoke to John Carlini on the phone.  At the suggestion of Rolly Brown, I had emailed John to inquire about taking guitar lessons.  I got a reply on Monday saying to call on a weekday morning to talk it over.

I was a little bit surprised to find that I was nervous.  I’m not generally intimidated by people, but I suppose I had thought about this long enough for the realization to settle in that I was speaking to a man who had worked with not just one, but several of the musicians I had most respected in my life.  All of the discomfort was completely in my own head, of course.  John couldn’t possibly have been more pleasant, down-to-earth, and normal.

He asked how long I had been playing, what kinds of music I was interested in, all the questions a teacher might ask a prospective student.  Nothing out of the ordinary, and all pretty matter-of-fact.  I would guess the entire conversation lasted 15 or 20 minutes, and despite my nervousness and inability to articulate much in the way of a specific goal I’m aiming to achieve with these lessons, when I hung up I found myself with directions to his home and an appointment to begin bi-weekly lessons on June 17.

That gives me two weeks.  I’ve got to get some serious practice time in between now and then.  I haven’t played in months, and I am sure the rust has settled in nice and thick at this point.  All the talk and speculation is over now.  I gotta get to work.

A Tale of The Unexpected

Shortly before 10:00 this morning I posted a message to FLATPICK-L, an email list of acoustic guitar enthusiasts, in which I mentioned that I had been kicking around a notion to take some classical guitar lessons.

As mentioned in the By Way Of Introduction… page elsewhere in this blog, I’ve been playing guitar for a long time without ever having more than the most rudimentary instruction.  I’ve arrived at a point where I’m curious to apply some good solid theory to what it is I’ve been doing all these years.  And more importantly, I’d like to know the fretboard better than I do.  Less importantly, but still of some interest, I think it would be nice to know how to read music for guitar.  Not just tablature, but actual notes on the staff.

I’ve never played classical music, but I got it into my head that classical lessons would be a way to learn these things.  And surely whatever I learned that was pertinent would transfer to whatever music I wanted to play at any given time.

Anyway, before 3:30 rolled around this afternoon, National Fingerpicking Champion Rolly Brown had read my post and responded to me with a suggestion.  Given that I live in Maplewood, NJ, Rolly’s speculation was that I must be within relatively close proximity to John Carlini, who would likely take me on as a student.

John is an excellent guy to study with for sightreading and fingerboard skills, and also understands bluegrass,” Rolly wrote.

John, whose musical resumé is wide and deep, is well-known in the acoustic guitar community, especially in bluegrass and folk music circles, as the former musical director for the David Grisman Quintet, and also for River Suite For Two Guitars, an album of guitar duets he recorded with legendary bluegrass guitarist Tony Rice. Additionally, John writes a regular column for Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, the only guitar magazine I have ever subscribed to.  I had no idea that he lives near me, nor that he gave private lessons.

Pretty exciting.

And So It Begins

Bless my wife’s heart.  One evening this week I turned and said to her that I’ve decided to search for my dream guitar.  I told her right up front that this was going to take a lot of time and effort, and that it will very likely end up costing us a bundle.  Her only response was, “OK.”

I don’t really even know what the phrase “dream guitar” means to me, truth be told, but I guess defining it will be part of the process.

Musically speaking, I’m not much of a gear guy.  I currently own four guitars: an Alvarez, which was the first “real” guitar I ever owned and which is covered in the signatures of various musicians I have met and or played with in my life; a Yamaha classical guitar given to me buy an aunt who had used it for lessons she took years ago; a Martin Alternative X that I often use for recording because it has onboard electronics that facilitate the process; and a Martin D-28.

I suppose the reason I haven’t yearned for guitars the way many players do is because my main instrument for the past 27 years has been the D-28.  I bought it new in 1981, knowing even then that, barring anything unexpected or catastrophic, I would never need another acoustic guitar.  Indeed, there are some people who think of a D-28 as the Holy Grail of acoustic guitars.  These instruments are almost ubiquitous in bluegrass, which is the music I know best and have played the most over the years.  By far, the most highly-coveted Martins are those built in the “pre-war” years, but even though mine falls well outside that category it is a fine guitar and I have loved it since the day I brought it home.

Nevertheless, I’ve decided to hit the streets in search of something more.  I want to explore the higher-end, small-shop builders, and maybe even some individual luthiers.  Along the way, I’m going to need to learn about all sorts of things like tonewoods and other materials, different building techniques and how they compare, and ultimately, exactly what it is I’m looking for.

Here we go….