How A 15 Year Old Learned Fingerpicking Inside And Out

For the sake of privacy, I've changed the name of the person in this success story.

I've been working with Nancy since she was about 10 years old. I normally don't like to work with kids that are this young because my curriculum was designed for adults. Nancy, however, was not a normal kid. She has oodles of creativity, is a fearless performer, is about 10 times smarter than I am, and she's a quick learner.

Nancy originally came in for a lesson about five years ago. We learned the basic stuff: Strumming, chords, and how to do lots of nifty things like mute strumming (our favorite jam was Horse With No Name by America, which is full of mute strums). She disliked learning songs like Dead Flowers because it wasn't exactly in line with her generation. Since I am an older dude, I constantly dropped millennial sayings just to get her to practice and work harder, and she'd give me a quizzical, almost annoyed look. I'll do a lot for progress, even if it means I'm making fun of myself.

It is fun watching her learn. Through working with her and her parents really closely, she started to get really interested in learning to write songs. Last year, as she was learning over Skype (yes, that's possible too), she managed to write at least one song per week. Being the type of teacher I am, I thought to myself "What sorts of things can I teach her that will be helpful for her as she writes songs?" On the sly, I started showing her possibly the hardest fingerpicking exercises in the classical guitar repertoire, Giuliani's 120 Exercises for the Right Hand. These exercises aren't difficult in the traditional sense; They just need attention, and to be perfectly honest they are dry and boring. I basically started to use the warm-up time in each lesson to show her a new fingerpicking pattern. This started roughly a year ago.

Through about a years worth of lessons, I've managed to show her about 40 different patterns, all college-level classical guitar. She didn't like them at first, but she got to expect them as part of the guitar lesson experience. Not too long ago I started to randomly play Landslide by Fleetwood Mac. She said, "You must show me this right now!" I did, and she played it beautifully without me really having to coach her through it. The fingerpicking exercises paid off. Imagine my surprise when she basically started writing fingerpicking songs! Her creativity is boundless, and shes a fearless performer. It has been a trip to watch her grow into a strong and highly-capable guitarist, and basically on less than five minutes a day, too. We never spent more than five minutes each lesson doing these fingerpicking exercises. It was fantastic, and I'm so proud of her.

Success Story: How A Busy High School Principal Learned Guitar on Five Minutes A Day

Out of respect for the student I am writing about, I have changed his name to Patrick.

One thing that blows a lot of people's minds is when I tell them they can learn on five minutes a day. As you'll see in this success story, my friend Patrick managed to do it despite having an excessively busy schedule.

Patrick is a rare breed of human. He is an avid outdoorsman, spending tons of time in Colorado. He shared a story once of how he climbed a major mountain in two or three days. He was obsessed with coaching basketball teams, and he loved traveling to Las Vegas. He is now retired, but when we were working together it wasn't at all uncommon for him to work 70 or 80 hour weeks. And yet, he wanted to learn to play guitar.

The first lesson, he told me he was auditioning two other guitar instructors and was going to pick the best one. I was delighted and gratified when he picked me! Here's what we did right off the bat: We worked on strumming. I showed him each of about 15 different strumming patterns that were easy to master. I purposely set them up this way so that the student's momentum can be built up. Then, we started playing songs. My favorite first song is undoubtedly Tugboat by Galaxie 500. When he learned that, he finally had what he was looking for: The first inking that he could play guitar and really enjoy it.

We worked on the chords next. Rather than teach him all the chords at once, we worked on only the ones we needed for the songs he wanted to play. And yes, there were a lot of them. He asked to learn how to play The Travelin Wilburies' End Of The Line. Easy! D, A, and G. Once he learned it, he was completely psyched. Mind you, I only gave him suggestions to practice that would take five minutes a day to practice. He got this song within three months, and this was after he learned Dead Flowers by The Rolling Stones and Last Kiss by Pearl Jam.

Patrick didn't stop there. He asked for Tom Petty song after Tom Petty song. I became really well-versed in Tom Petty! And whenever we tried to learn something new, all I did was smooth out the road and make sure that the practicing never exceeded five minutes a day. That is my solemn promise to all students: I will never ask for more than five minutes of practice each day.

Patrick has since moved onto other endeavors in life (retirement being one of them). We still keep in touch because it's fun to talk. I hope we get to hang out really soon because it's always a blast to hear what he's up to.

So, what do you want to do on guitar? What do you want to play?


How To Nail A Hard Strumming Pattern

Yesterday, I worked with a brand new student. She was such a natural with guitar that I barely had to help her learn strumming. She was so able to get into the flow of strumming that all I ended up doing was simple:

  1. Show her the strumming pattern
  2. Play the mp3
  3. Play along with her

In a matter of an hour, she went from never having played a song to playing Tugboat by Galaxie 500. It was a blast!

So, what does that have to do with strumming in general? For many of us, strumming can be a challenge. When strumming does become a challenge for you, I have a couple of suggestions:

  1. Play the strumming pattern at a slightly lower tempo. If you play it well, take it slowerthan that.
  2. When you get as slow as you can go and you're close to making a mistake, stay at that tempo. That tempo is where you'll get your best practicing in.
  3. Take the strumming pattern faster, and faster, and try to top it out at just a little faster than the original tempo.
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Strumming need not be hard, but one mistake that many beginners make is the idea that it must be fast, right out of the gate. Don't do this! Take your time and slow down, more, and even more. This helps you get your mechanics together. Then, once you speed it up afterwords, you'll get your flow. Finally, when you play the strumming pattern at the desired tempo, it'll be with mastery.

Not all of us are naturals like my student was yesterday, but that doesn't mean we have to struggle with practicing. Adjust your approach, and you'll learn quicker.

Try watching TV when practicing

Though I really hate to admit it, practicing guitar could be a whole lot easier if we watched TV while doing it. Why?

When we first learn something new, it is at the cognitive level. Unless we have Super-Man-esque concentration levels, we need a distraction. Thankfully, there is Seinfeld and Parks and Recreation reruns. After we learn something new, we need to play it, not just understand it.

Try this out for starters:

Try learning two new chord progressions. It could be something easy like say: G-Bminor-A-E (the Bminor is thrown in there because it isn't the most used chord in pop music). Or it could be something more in line with where you are at with your skill level. Then just sit down on the couch, watch your favorite Indiana Jones movie, and then when it gets to the part where Indiana Jones is punching some evil dude, check on your progress (which is like every three minutes in those movies).

Voila. Watching TV gives your brain a break, and allows your fingers to get more nimble at playing guitar.

What do the dots on a guitar neck mean?

What do the dots on a guitar neck mean?

The dots on the guitar neck are visual references. They help you jump to a different part of the neck quickly, easily, and with accuracy.

For example, if you were playing Tunnels by the Arcade Fire, you might play a power chord on the 1st fret followed by a power chord on the 10th fret. The dots, being visual references, make a nine fret jump a bit easier. 

The rest of this post will go over all the details of the dots on a guitar neck, what they mean, and how you can use them to augment your guitar fun. Let's hit it...