Egregious Bloviation

Sep 12, 2019
I got an email this week from Cliff, who I've known since I was teaching at the National Guitar Workshop back in the twentieth century. He took part in one of the Zoom workshops a couple of weeks ago, and since then we've been writing back and forth about fingerstyle guitar and other related things. I keep having epistolary discussions like this and wishing they were taking place in a broader context, not because my thoughts on the subject are necessarily all that clever but because it would appear from the anecdotal evidence in my inbox that plenty of other people interested in this kind of music are wondering about the same sorts of things. Here's what Cliff wanted to know:

"I've just consumed a few of your video lessons, one of which was the Deep River Blues take. During the first part of the video you mentioned your idea of learning the respective bass and chord/melody lines of a tune in time and then putting them together.  I confess I've never done that. I've always learned by ear and with varying success have been able to cop stuff mostly complete in that fashion.  Throughout all of it I've never counted time or learned the right and left hand parts separately.  Rather, it's all been by ear and eye on someone's hands. Truth is, I've actually tried to count while reading notation and I suck at it.

"What if I did go through the (considerable) pain of dedicating myself to...say...counting out the time in a tune as I'm learning it...what would I gain from that in your opinion if in the end I could play the tune without having gone through that exercise? Is it 'necessary'?  Or to put it differently, what would I not learn/gain by not doing it? I'd like to devote myself to becoming a more skilled improvisor and guitar player in general, and I want to know whether my learning style is something that might be egregiously holding me back."

First of all, if you want to get my attention, using the word "egregiously" will do the trick almost as reliably as appealing to my pedagogical vanity. I prefer corresponding with musicians who made it to at least the "G's" in the SAT prep book ("gregarious," "grandiloquence"), and I'm always ready to drop what I'm doing to bloviate about learning to play guitar.

In attempting to answer this question, though, I could easily wind up illustrating the Mark Twain quote: "To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail." I'm in the teaching racket, so, sure, why not? "Yeah, you should learn to count stuff out." After all, fingerstyle is tricky stuff, good time makes just about anything sound better, and the syncopated flow of most roots guitar music is largely a function of how the fingers court and spark with the thumb's reliable downbeat. So, yes, if you want to get it right, count that sucker out. Find the pulse, tap your foot and count to four – it's just math, and with a little intellectual attention you should be able to put the notes where they belong.

But do you have to do it that way? No. This comes up all the time, especially when I'm teaching music theory: " you think Albert Collins was thinking about spelling out the notes of the V chord?" Probably not, even though you can hear him literally and figuratively bending the scale to suit the chord he's on. For that matter, according to the Ethan Iverson essay I linked to a few weeks back, Lester Young may not have always known exactly why his notes fit over the chords either. And the fingerstyle pantheon is crowded with self-taught, intuitive, ear-based musicians, some of whom may not have even read English, much less music notation.

But if you were able to achieve all you wanted to intuitively, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation in the first place. You'd be off doing your thing, not seeking out further instruction. So as a teacher, if you show up on my metaphorical doorstep, I'm likely to assume – rightly or wrongly – that you've traveled as far as your intuition will take you, for now anyway, and you're looking for tangible tools to improve your playing. Teachers do tend to teach the things one can quantify, like the beats in a bar or the pitch of a note. It's a mistake to do so to the exclusion of intuition, but it's hard to talk about where intuition comes from, much less inculcate it in someone else. Most of us barely know where it comes from ourselves; that's why it's called intuition. So we break things down  into their constituent parts and teach voicings, right hand coordination, to count.

And while I like the idea of discussing the less visible aspects of music, over the years I've seen enough master classes by unprepared performers with no teaching background to adopt a pretty strict "just the facts, ma'am" policy. Some pros are great at explaining what they do, but many fall back on romanticizing their ignorance, whether feigned or genuine. That's cool, if you're spinning for Rolling Stone, but it's lame and insulting to stand there and shrug "hey, you've got it or ya don't" once you've taken a paycheck to explain your work. Besides, while our culture loves its intuitive geniuses and noble savages, plenty of successful creators know their shit inside out – by the time young Bobby Dylan was running his Blind Boy Grunt schtick on the press, he had already inhaled the lyrics, feel and musical syntax of decades of recorded music, absorbing the cultural details he would later use to write his surreal refractions of the American landscape.

But back to the original question. What are you missing if you don't learn to count, and what are you gaining if you do?

My short answer – don't laugh, this has been as short as I could make it – is that it depends in part on what you're here for. If you're doing this for fun, and to learn and play some set pieces of music? Don't bother. You don't need to learn how to count, to coordinate, to go step by step. You can learn pieces by rote, enjoy playing them, and so long as that floats your boat, there is no real benefit from breaking things down any further. And I'm not saying this rhetorically. If that's how you do it and it's working for you, that's perfect.

Now, if the intuitive process isn't getting you the results you want, that's another story. Here are some reasons I can think of to take a more intentional, stepwise approach:
  • If it takes you longer than you'd like to learn the pieces you're working on
  • If you can't get them to sound as good as you'd like
  • If you're having trouble remembering them all the way through
  • If you find yourself repeating the same mistakes each time you play a particular piece
In addition, if you're interested in things like creating your own arrangements, writing your own music, or learning to improvise, and have not made much headway through trial and error, a more intentional, stepwise approach might help with those, too.

In the "Deep River Blues" lesson, I talked about isolating the alternating-thumb bass line, learning the melody on its own, and then working to put them back together, measure by measure. Is the process itself musical? Not in the sense of being a relaxing evening's entertainment. And no one will come into the kitchen when you're practicing and ask to hang out and listen, either. But the long-term results – grooving with conviction, making the melody sing, transcending the mechanics to play with expression – will be the definition of musicality itself.

More soon,