Blues WeekMar 22, 2021
I started working at the National Guitar Workshop when I was twenty-three, teaching basically the same slate of classes six days a week for five weeks every summer. Every week I had two divisions of the same electric blues class, and I did that for at least five summers before branching out into other topics. And from that first summer on, every following spring I would start thinking about how I could teach the class next time. I'd try and remember what had worked and what hadn't, the kinds of things people had asked about, the ideas I'd come up with on the fly that were fun or effective or just better than the lessons I had planned. It wasn't exactly Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours, but by the time I sat down to write my Beginning Electric Blues book in my late twenties, I must have taught the basics of electric blues at least fifty times. All that iteration paid off; writing the book was mostly a matter of taking everything I'd been slinging in a hot Connecticut classroom the past half-decade and figuring out a way to put it all on paper.
This week, I'm making a free series of fingerstyle blues lessons available to anyone who'd like to check them out. I do this every three to six months as a way of introducing people to the essential concepts I teach in my membership program, The Fingerstyle Five, but they're also meant stand on their own. Just speaking mathematically, the vast majority of folks will watch the lessons without signing up, which is totally cool because A) doing things for free makes me feel like I still have a soul, and B) it's a chance to take another shot at organizing my ideas about improvisation, groove and arranging. Along with chord voicings and repertoire, those are the eponymous Five the membership refers to, and they're equally central to my Youtube lessons and weekend workshops. Coming back to these three subjects again and again, I find there's always a clearer and better way to talk about them which, among other things, gives my inner editor something to do on those long winter evenings.
James McMurtry's album Live in Aught Three, if you're unfamiliar with it, is a pretty spectacular outing filled with remarkable songwriting and daredevil guitar. But there's also a great between-songs moment when McMurtry, conducting his obligatory rap about the merchandise table, drawls, "I used to the think I was an artist. Come to find, I'm a beer salesman." When I set up the weekly routine of my membership a year and a half ago, I thought I was taking the guesswork out of what and when to practice. Come to find, as McMurtry would say, I was taking the guesswork out of how to practice. This may seem like a fine distinction, but as I was preparing these lessons last week, I sent a draft of the video out to a handful of current members for feedback. Does this, I asked, reflect way we do things around here, and by the way, instead of explaining things so much, should I just shut up and play my guitar? The feedback was detailed and generous, which is how I discovered what's working best are the small, specific things: lessons that break big, vague concepts like improvisation and groove down into granular, tangible exercises.
In the end, I left in some of the talking, because everyone agreed it helps to understand why you're doing things, too. But for the most part, each video in this series will show you how focus on one aspect of the eight-bar blues "Motherless Child," starting with today's lesson on how to develop your own vocabulary of small, modular licks. This is something you can get started on even if you've never improvised before, because it's based on taking the phrasing and rhythms of the melody of the tune, changing around a few notes, then swapping the resulting licks into the chord progression one by one. There's a 20-page tab booklet with all of this week's examples, and I'll post new lessons daily from now through Friday. As a current reader of the newsletter, you don't have to sign up for anything new; just go to the link below to download the handout and start watching the first lesson:
How To Play Better Fingerstyle Blues