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Guitar lessons

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Guitar lessons

For those of you who might be interested, I will share some of my experiences from learning guitar. It might be of some help to some of you.

I started to play guitar when I was 11-12 years old, more than 30 years ago. At that time, there was not many learning aids available, specially in small town in Norway. But I had been playing trumpet for some time, and new how to read music. My main source for learning was a series of articles in a boy scout magazine - a good boy scout should know how to play guitar and sing by the camp fire. The first song I learned was Bob Dylan's "Blowing in the Wind" in the key of C. Gradually I learned more chords and more songs, and was strumming and singing. But I was not very good at finding the chords to a song by ear. I either found a song sheet with chords, or learned the chords from some friends.

At that time, in the late sixties and early seventies, my guitar playing friends where into rock, playing electric guitar in bands. Although I liked rock too, I really loved (and still love) the sound of the acoustic steel-string guitar. Musically I was a loner in my hometown. Only occasionally I played with others. When looking back, I think I should have played more with others. For anyone who is learning an instrument, it is good to play with someone else. One can learn from each others, and one have to listen to and relate to what the others are playing. When playing with others, one must use the ears.

I wanted to play play blues on the acoustic guitar, and I wanted to fingerpick. Eventually I learned some fingerpicking, mainly simple arpeggios (I did not know the word arpeggio at that time), and some basic blues turnarounds in E. At that time, we tended to believe that blues was a kind of music that was played in E - at least we could not play blues in any other key.

I my hometown, there was one music store. It was a small shop established long time ago by a violin maker (he was famous for his "Hardanger fiddles" - a traditional Norwegian fiddle with symphatetic strings). In the shop they had everything from stereos to pianos, wind instruments, guitars, records and sheet music. But not very much of each. And the girls working in the shop seemed to be more interested in their make-up than in music. One day I found something in that store that I thought must be a treasure: Stefan Grossman's book "Country Blues Guitar". I thought it was just what I was looking for: A book explaining how to play acoustic blues guitar. To my surprise, I hardly found a song in E in this book. It was G, C and D, and then very few in A and E. At that time I had never heard of Mississippi John Hurt or any other of the musicians mentioned in the book. The blues sounding in my head was John Mayall, and some folk singers blues in E and maybe A. With the help of transcriptions of John Hurt songs, I was trying to play something that should sound like acoustic John Mayall. It was not a success.

On the back of one book, I found the address to Oak Publication, a publisher of many music books, among others Stefan Grossman's series on country blues. I started to buy by mail order from USA and from England. But I only got books, and was trying to figure out music that I did not know, played by artists I have never heard of, from the books. Finally I started to buy records from Arhoolie Records and Yazoo Records, again by mail-order from USA, and I bought the tapes Stefan Grossman had prepared for his books. The sound was a shock. Scratchy and noisy records that did not sound like "my" blues. But I eventually learned some of the songs, and I eventually became a rather good guitar picker. I choose the word guitar picker, and not musician, because I was lacking a lot of the skills one should have to be a musician.

I had really started on a dead end street. I knew a lot of songs, but had learned everything from books. I used tapes and records as an aid to the books, and not the opposite. I learned to play mainly with my eyes, not with my ears. And music is an hearing art.  I wanted to cut loose, and be able to improvise and play the sounds in my head. But I was trapped in the songs I had learned.

It was a breakthrough for me when I sometime in the late seventies bought Happy Traum's tape series "Blues Guitar". I gave me what I had been looking for. He did not teach songs. He taught structures and musical elements, and used songs as a tool to teach these elements. I few years later I started to teach blues guitar. My idea was that I had finally learned what I had been searching for years, without finding much help in learning the music. So I wanted to share this knowledge with people who were in the same situation as I had been, and at the same time earn some money to support my living as a law student. I eventually compiled the notes I used for my teaching and published a book on blues guitar. I have to admit that it was very much inspired by Happy Traum's teaching in his tape series.

But I had developed a bad habit. When I wanted to learn a new song or some new style of playing, I looked for a book where the music was transcribed. I did not listen through the music over and over again, trying to learn it by ear. So although I was a fairly good guitar player, I still had weak ears. I had trouble getting the chords to a song from a record, and was still not really able to improvise. My "improvisations" was really just repetition of scales and licks I have learned, and not anything from inside that I could express through my music. I still suffer from this, but I am improving.

I finally realized that I had to work my way out of the dead end street where I still was. I had to develop my ears. I started late, but not too late. When you start on this in your late thirties and early forties, I believe you have a much slower progress than someone who is starting in his teens or twenties.

I have been working on this with a dual track approach. I do traditional ear training: Singing an listening to intervals, to chords, scales etc. It is often boring, but it helps. The problem when you are working on your own, is that you cannot really test yourself by playing and listening. When you played the interval, you already know what you were playing. But there are cassettes, CDs and computer programs available that can be of great help.

The other track is to use what I already know, and build my skills on this. After playing blues for many years, I had no problems identifying a 12-bar blues progression. And when I knew what to listen for, it was not difficult to identify several variations. Did they change to the IV chord in bar 2, or did they play only the I chord for the first four bars? Did they play a V-IV-I sequence in the last line, or just V-I? Did they play a turnaround ending on the V7 chord or not? I also had the sound of the I-IV change, the I-I7, the I-V7, V7-I, etc. When the music did not quite fit into what I already knew, I had some clues. It could for instance be a 12-bar blues, but with some other chords thrown in. I started to work on chord progressions, on scales, on modes, etc.

I started to memorize the sounds and the progressions by memorizing songs with these progressions. You will often hear a song and think that "it sounds like ....". If you know nothing about the musical elements in the song it sounds like, then it is not of very much help. But when a song reminds you of "Sultans of Swing", and you know that "Sultans" has the i-VIIb-VIb (I) progression with a few IIIb chords added, and that it is played in Dm, then you know where to start. After some time you will identify the chord progressions, without thinking of any particular song. When you know common chord progressions, you will identify songs with these chords. And you will also identify songs that do not follow any of these progressions, and you will be able to hear where they deviate from well known musical territory. I think of learning music in the same way as learning a language. You need to learn words and phrases, you have to listen and you have to use the language. And the more words you know, the easier it is to find the meaning of a new word from the context.

I also believe that one can develop better tone and key identification skills. I do not like the term "perfect pitch". You can develop tone and key identification skills, even though they are not perfect. After having tuned the guitar to a 440 Hz tuning fork for years, I realized that I did not need the tuning fork anymore. I know the sound of sound of a 440 Hz A. But that does not mean that I can identify every note I hear. Sometimes I can hear a song, and get associations to another song. Often this happens because the songs are in the same key and have the same chords. In this way I can often identify the key and chords of a song, as long as it is in a for me well known key and is played in a style I am familiar with. I also have some compositions, mainly classical music, that serves as note and key references. I do not call this "perfect pitch", because it is far from perfect. But it is a skill that has improved over the years, and it helps to work on this skill.

These lessons are based on this philosophy. A reason for writing these lessons is the same as my reason for starting to teach in the early 80's: I see no reason why everyone should repeat my mistakes and struggle as much as I have done in learning this. And maybe even more important: I learn a lot myself from writing these lessons.

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