Sunday, 5 October 2008

Music Lessons

While the Christmas knitting continues on this rainy and miserable loooking day, the book I'm reading at the moment brings us back to the guitar.

Guitar Man tells of Will Hodgkinson's decision, at the age of 35 and with a wife and two small children, that it's time for him to fulfill a longheld dream and learn to play the guitar. He gives himself 6 months to form a band and play a gig.

His musical journey takes him from Cornwall to Mississippi, meeting guitar pros like Bert Jansch, Johnny Marr, Roger McGuinn and PJ Harvey for tips and advice. Plus, it's hilarious.

It's also comforting to see someone else facing exactly the same problems and set backs that I've had in trying to learn to play. The frustration at not being able to get your hands to do what you want; the complete mystery of watching someone play a fairly simple tune and having no idea of how to replicate it; the overwhelming sense that some people are musical and talented and you're just clearly not one of them.

On almost every page is a set-back or experience I've shared at some point (along with a few small victories) so it's great to know I'm not alone. It's a brilliant read for anyone learning, or tempted to learn, any instrument as an adult.

I've hit a bit of a rut with my playing lately and it's tricky when you want to try something more complicated but don't really know where to start. So I decided to go back to what made me determined not to have my guitar just decorating my room, but actually learn to play the damn thing. I'd had it for a couple of years and could play a few simple songs, but watching KT Tunstall's now infamous performance on Jools Holland blew me away:

Admit it, even if you're not a fan of her music it's pretty impressive isn't it? Apart from anything else her timing is immaculate all the way through. God knows how I'm ever going to be able to play like that - and of course a lot of what she's doing isn't actually about the guitar - but it's a vast improvement on the image of a one-man-band after Dick van Dyke.

And it definitely helps to find a song you really love so that you can practice that, rather than trying to learn new techniques in isolation. Which is what led me to a website designed for learner guitar players where various pop folk have made a video teaching you to play their song - Now Play It. Not a huge variety of stuff on there and, as Guitar Man proves, a lot of performers aren't actually very good teachers - they just want to show off and aren't capable of breaking it down and explaining how they actually do it.

But I decided to give Miss Tunstall the benefit of the doubt and downloaded her lesson on Black Horse and the Cherry Tree (a friend had given me the sheet music but that only gives you the chords). And she's actually a really good teacher, who not only explains the techniques she's using, but suggests different exercises to help you master them and goes nice and slowly for us uncoordinated amateurs.

The site is, of course, a horribly commercial way to tap into those teenagers (oh, alright and those of us who should be old enough to know better, ahem) who are strumming away in their bedrooms and who, apparently, are dying to know the secrets of the latest hit from OneRepublic. Admittedly, it lacks the romance and authenticity of a rocking chair on a Mississippi porch. But it's a lot cheaper than guitar lessons and the videos are nicely put together, with chord diagrams etc, so it's one more resource to make use of.

Despite KT's clear instructions, my progress remains pretty slow. I'm still trying to master the strumming pattern and the dampening technique and then there's the fiddly bit of the one-string intro, not forgetting the palm muting and of course the seamless changes from chord to no-chord and - well, as you can see - I've got a way to go yet. And that's just to play it without a loop pedal.

So, for now, please excuse me as I have to take advantage of the neighbours probably being out, in order to master my palm mute without driving them to post a molotov cocktail through my letterbox.

Strum-strum-stop-strum-stop-strum-strum. Strum-strum-stop-strum-stop-strum-strum. Strum-str......

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