What Would Be Cool, And What Would It Take?

Mar 05, 2020
A few years back, I ran a couple surveys, just when I was getting Fretboard Confidential off the ground. In essence, the surveys asked, "What do you really want to know about playing the guitar?" And inevitably, I would get back answers along the lines of, "What I want to know is how to get good." Or sometimes, as phrased by someone from the glass-half-empty crowd, "I just want to know how to stop sucking."

As I've gradually narrowed my teaching focus, I find peoples' notions of "what I suck at" tend to fall into roughly two categories. There are people who can play some songs and exercises, but they want to know how to do more with them – develop them into full-length arrangements, keep things interesting for two or three minutes, take their ideas further up the neck, maybe do some improvising.

Then there are the folks who have done enough playing and experimenting to know fingerstyle is their thing, but they still find the right-hand coordination to be kind of a challenge. Maybe they haven't even exactly identified this as such, but the questions suggest it: How do I get my thumb to be consistent? How do I really synchronize my fingers with my thumb? How do I play what I know without stumbling?

The first category is basically about repertoire: once you learn a song, what can you do with it? The second category is basically about groove: what does it take to play with good time?

Both are important. The simplest things will sound immeasurably better when played with a solid groove. And the most sophisticated arrangements will fall flat if played without one. Which is why getting good is more of a circular process than a linear one.

I'm thinking about all this right now because I am currently getting my ass kicked by a couple of string quartets. A few months ago, my friend Jan invited me to come play at his 60th birthday party. John Knowles was also coming to play, and we'd both seen John do a few of his arrangements with a string quartet last summer at the Chet Atkins convention in Nashville. So there was some loose talk about rounding up a string quartet for the party so John could pull out a few of those charts again, and like an idiot I said "hey, could I bring a few string charts too?" "Sure," said Jan," do you have any?" Well, no, not yet," I replied. "But hey – I've got three months, right?"

I probably wouldn't be talking about this at all if I didn't feel like I'd recently turned the corner on this project, but the fact is, even arranging an existing tune of one's own devising for four other humans is every bit as tricky as it sounds. At least, the first time it is – I'll let you know if it gets any easier on chart #2. But in the end, what seems to be working is a reasonable balance of "what would be cool at this point in the tune?" and "what do I need to be able to do to make that happen?" For instance, last night I got to the third section of this ragtime instrumental and after doinking around with this and that, I realized "aw man, all I really need to do is pass this syncopated riff back and forth between the guitar and the strings." Which then meant figuring out – for the first time, I feel a little sheepish admitting – exactly what chords I was playing, figuring out what register to put the melody in for the first violin, and then working out how to hang the next couple of harmony notes below that for the second violin and viola. But that was it: what would be cool, and what would it take to do it?

Which pretty much sums up my whole perspective on what my friend Carlo calls "making the stuff." Whether it's guitar playing or songwriting or inventing thirty seconds of ad music, it basically comes down to: what would be cool, and what would it take?

Note that "what would be cool?" comes first, before "What would it take to do it?" Which is why when anyone asks me "what chords should I learn?" or "what scales should I know?" my answer is usually, annoyingly, another question: "What are you trying to do?" If you're trying to write three-chord folk songs, you maybe don't need to know the modes of the harmonic minor scale. If you're trying to solo on "Anthropology," you may not need to know how to Travis pick. (That said, learning stuff does potentially lead you into interesting territory; I for one would like to hear someone Travis picking through "Anthropology," though I think I'd probably pass on the folk songs written with the superlocrian scale.)

Back to our two kinds of fingerpickers, and the circularity of learning to play. Almost nobody starts playing guitar thinking "Man, I want to practice." You pick up the guitar because you want to play. The person who wants to play without stumbling through a song, and the person who wants to make that song last longer and sound more interesting, both have the same end in mind: play songs, and sound better doing so. Questions about what to practice are really asking: "This is the cool thing I want to do. Now, what will it take to do it?" The circularity of learning comes from this: even if you've gotten really good, the first time you approach a new song, you're starting from the same place: what's the groove, what chords are involved, how am I going to get this tune into my head and under my fingers?

To me, the course of getting good at fingerstyle guitar runs from basic Travis picking and steady bass coordination, through an increasing chord vocabulary, to a growing repertoire of tunes, to more detailed and sophisticated arrangements of those tunes, to a capacity to improvise on that repertoire. That process is a slow burn, undertaken over a period of months or years. But it's also a practice cycle that many experienced guitarists go through a condensed version of each time they learn a new song.

When I first started working on what would become my Fingerstyle Five membership, I developed and shot an entire curriculum that I summarily junked after four months of work. Because after making all this stuff, I looked at what I'd done and realized it wasn't any fun. I wasn't having fun making it, and it definitely didn't feel like it would be fun to go through.

The problem, of course, was I had spent all this time saying "here's what to do," without having first identified "what would be cool?" I had made all these exercises and lessons about technique and phrasing and so on, before I remembered: ok, really, the point is to play. When I discovered fingerstyle guitar as a teenager, the thing that got me going was learning new tunes, having something new to play that sounded really cool. So I rethought everything from the ground up: "What would be cool? Playing new tunes." At that point, the question of what to make, what to shoot, what to show, became much simpler: Ok, great – new tunes would be cool. So...what would it take to play them?

"What would it take" somewhat depends on where you're at as a guitar player. If you're just getting your right hand together, you need a basic version of a tune, stripped down to the essentials: here's the bass, here's the melody. Not a lot of syncopation or fancy voicings. Something that still sounds good, even if it's simple. And maybe a few exercises isolating any tricky spots, and some suggestions on how to practice those spots.

A more intermediate player could use that basic version of a tune as the framework for something a little more sophisticated. If there's an advanced version of the same tune, in the same key, with the same groove, that advanced version could introduce more sophisticated voicings, fills, passing chords and more. You could A/B the versions yourself to see how to start turning something simple into something more elaborate. And there could be exercises to start introducing elements of improvisation into the mix as well.

This is, in fact, how I began The Fingerstyle Five last October, and it's actually turned out to be a pretty workable format. Since then, I've rolled out two versions of a new tune each month, followed by exercises, improvisation ideas and an arranging workshop tailored to that specifc tune. For everyone in the membership, the path is clear: we're learning tunes, and the skills to execute them better. And for me, as the guy making the stuff, it's simple too. What would be cool? A simple, streamlined path for people of various levels to pursue. What would that take? A repertoire-based approach that walks you through the elements of groove, voicings, arranging and improvisation, step by step, month by month.

If you routinely find yourself staring at an ever-growing stack of books on the music stand, or wondering why you keep playing the same things over and over without sounding as good as you'd like, try asking yourself "what would be cool?" And then, start thinking about what it would take to make that happen.

More soon,


P.S. From time to time I hear back from people about the various books I've recommended here. Since I haven't mentioned any in a while, here a few I'm either currently reading or imagining I'll find the time for soon:

Aaron Gilbreath, This Is: Essays on Jazz

Ted Anthony, Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song

Ben Ratliff, The Jazz Ear

Jeffrey Magee, The Uncrowned King of Swing: Fletcher Henderson and Big Band Jazz