Saturday, June 30, 2018

Lean on Me - An Easy Classic Everybody Knows

Bill Withers in the 70s

"Lean on Me" is a song written and recorded by American singer-songwriter Bill Withers. It was released in April 1972. Withers had been brought up in a tight-knit coal mining town in West Virginia. When he moved to L.A. in his early twenties he missed the tight connections of his home town.
In an interview he said, "I bought a little piano and I was sitting there just running my fingers up and down the piano. In the course of doing the music, that phrase crossed my mind, so then you go back and say, 'OK, I like the way that phrase, Lean On Me, sounds with this song.'"
Covered by many different artists, "Lean on Me" is one of only nine songs to have reached No. 1 in the US Singles Charts with versions recorded by two different artists.[Wikipedia]

Lean on me,
When you're not strong
And I'll be your friend
I'll help you carry on
For it won't be long
'Til I'm gonna need
Somebody to lean on

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Is Music Theory Necessary for Learning the Guitar?

Many guitar players can go a long way and be effective players without knowing much explicit guitar theory. That's pretty much an obvious fact.

By "explicit" guitar theory I mean having a formal understanding of how scales work, how chords are related, what keys are, etc., etc.

By the same token it is also obvious that a guitar player must know what a note is, must be able to play chords in sequences and progressions, will intuitively know how a scale works, and which bass notes work with what melodies.

Asking whether you need an understanding of music theory to be able to play effectively, is similar to asking whether you need to know English grammar to be able to speak intelligibly and "correctly".

This question has a dual answer. "No" you don't have to be able to explicitly say what the rules are. But also "Yes" you need a grasp of how language is used in practice, and therefore need an implicit understanding of  how the rules work. - at least the major ones.

As far as I can tell the same thing goes for music theory. Like a grammarian you can get hung up on the rules and spend more time and energy analyzing the way we speak rather than just putting the rules into practice. 

The beginning guitar player can spend more time learning how chords are constructed, and why progressions work the way they do, than she does actually playing them.

I suspect this is what most criticisms of formal music lessons boil down to: "Too much attention to theory and not enough attention to actually playing."

Practicing Scales is Not All About Theory

I think the same criticism is also levelled at teachers who emphasize exercises and scales for new students.

The simple fact is new players are encouraged to do repetitive exercises and scales for two fairly distinct purposes. 

On the one hand we play the C Scale over and over in order to learn where the notes are and how they go together. That much is what we might call "theory".

But on the other hand we play repetitive exercises to train our hands (and minds) to make the general kinds of moves we need to play the instrument smoothly and relatively effortlessly. This is not theory. It is like a baseball pitcher learning to throw strikes, a soccer player learning to hit the top corner of the net, or a golfer hitting thousands of shots on the driving range.

It's just that a musician playing scales is doing both things at the same time: learning a bit about theory, while gaining dexterity, strength and quickness.

So Far, So Good. But What About More Explicit Theory?

The most obvious example of "more explicit theory" is learning how to read traditional notation. But there others such as learning about minor chords, different modes, odd and unusual rhythms, standard chord shapes, playing chords further up the neck, and having access to relatively unusual chords such as diminished, augmented, and on and on.

Most of us can get by without a formal understanding of most of these things as long as we stay in our own little comfort zone or stick to playing with our regular band mates. 

But as soon as you step outside of that comfort zone to play with other musicians - especially if they know more than you do, or approach things a bit differently - that's when you find out how much you don't know.

So it's difficult to see how it would be bad to learn some of these things. Probably the best way to find out which things you should focus on is to ask other musicians you respect. 

One place to start might be an online forum moderated by people or instructors who share your specific interests. For example, if you're into blues it would be hard to beat the advice you can get from Griff Hamlin.

The Guitar Professor has his own website where he provides practice tracks for aspiring musicians.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Some Benefits of Music for Seniors

It is well known and generally acknowledged that musical activity can have beneficial results for seniors. These benefits come in different forms for different people depending on their circumstances.

"Music Therapy" is one well established method of helping people with physical and cognitive disabilities caused by conditions such as dementia. "MT" as it is referred to, often involves relatively passive activities like listening to music under controlled conditions. But it can also involve singing, drumming or tapping, and playing other simple instruments like the harmonica.

Research has shown that the soothing effect of music leads to better social interaction and often helps improve communication skills where they have been impaired by such things as stroke, or been the result of some other injury or sickness.

For what we might call "ordinary" seniors, music is often used  in retirement communities and senior centers in the form of special musical entertainment, sing songs and even dancing classes.

Participants are encouraged to engage in singing, clapping, and dancing to old familiar standards. This type of musical experience provides pleasant and enjoyable social interaction, a much needed bit of physical activity, and a jolt of positive emotional stimulation.

Can seniors benefit from playing musical instruments?

Listening to music can be emotionally stimulating, but it is a relatively passive activity. Can seniors benefit from being more actively involved in making music - by, for instance, singing or playing a musical instrument?

Of course it depends a lot on the senior, and on the instrument.

Many seniors have physical limitations that make fingering a violin or a guitar almost impossible. But those same people might benefit from participation in a drum circle.

Here is an example of a drum circle for seniors.

Participants in activities like this quickly get involved in making music, having fun, even dancing, chanting, and singing.

As Shannon Rattigan of says,
"If a facilitated drum circle is presented properly, in a matter of 10 minutes everyone can
be playing a drum rhythm together...The key to it is setting the right tone that this is going to be playful and fun. You can improvise,
play around, and just have a good time. Like we did when we were kids."

Can this be done with other instruments?

Again, it depends a lot on the senior and on the instrument. 

Many older people have played a musical instrument when they were younger, and stopped playing when family and work intervened. I often read on music instruction forums comments from older guys (most of them seem to be men) who have picked up the guitar after it sat in the closet for 40 years.

Yes, 40 years! That is not an exaggeration. I am an example. I played the guitar and trumpet in my teens and twenties, and didn't actively pick them up again until I was in my 60s.

The incentive for me was the opportunity to teach some of my grandchildren a bit of what I knew. And that led to many opportunities to perform with them at family gatherings. And of course that has resulted in the joy that comes with watching the kids become talented musicians in their own right.

The point is, it is possible to dust off old talents if the circumstances are right. Reviving old talents and playing in a small, informal band with friends or family is one possibility.

A retirement community seems like the perfect place where a group of people might get together to make music together in a more structured way - say as a singing ensemble or a little band. 

An enterprising social director in a seniors community might even form a larger band - using regular musical instruments or simple ones such as whistles, harmonicas, and a variety of percussion items (drums, tambourines, shakers, wooden blocks, etc.)

Playing traditional musical instruments

Is it realistic to think that a 70 or 80 year old person might continue to play a traditional musical instrument like a keyboard, guitar or trumpet? Or could he or she learn an entirely new instrument - a keyboard, for instance, or a banjo, harmonica or even a saxophone or guitar?

Again, it depends on the circumstances a person finds herself in - in particular, her physical limitations. 

Many aging people have lost flexibility in their hands. They may have a sore back or hips that make it difficult to sit in positions required by some instruments. And often an older person has difficulty seeing or hearing.

If none of these things are holding a person back then why not go for it!

But there is always the question of motivation

Learning to play an instrument like a piano - even in the most basic way - has real benefits. It provides enjoyment, mental stimulation, and a sense of accomplishment. And that may be enough incentive to get you to take on (and stick with) a project like teaching yourself a musical instrument.

But playing for your own enjoyment is often not enough of an incentive to keep you going. Playing a musical instrument, or even singing in a small ensemble, almost inevitably involves the opportunity to perform for others - usually friends, family or fellow community residents.

In other words it is often just the prospect of performing for others that keeps musicians going. Taking music lessons when you are a child almost always involves a "recital" every now and then to display what you have learned. Without the recital practicing starts to seem pointless.

There is no reason to think it should be any different for a senior. My father played his violin in church for at least 50 years, and it was those "performances" that kept him interested in playing. When his faculties started to deteriorate and the invitations to play dried up, so did his interest in playing at all.

It is performances like this that provide the incentive to become better and to learn new material, or for an older person, to hold on to the skills they developed earlier in life. 

So I would answer "Yes" to the question "Can a senior like me learn a new instrument?" It will give you enjoyment as well as mental and spiritual stimulation. And it will give you something meaningful to do with your time.

But don't keep it to yourself. Play for friends and family. Join a group or form a band.

Have fun being a musician, and share the joy with others.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The difference between 'backing tracks' and 'practice tracks'

These terms - backing tracks, practice tracks - get thrown around by musicians. What's the difference?
Of course there is no formal definition for these terms. First of all, a "track" is just a piece of music. More specifically, as musicians use the term, it usually refers to a recorded piece of music - something you can actually listen to.
Roughly speaking a backing track is a recorded piece of music used by an instrumentalist or singer as an aid either for practicing or performing. It often focuses on providing the rhythm, and usually does not include the part the person using the track is providing. 
For instance, if you are a singer a typical backing track will not include the singing part; if you are a saxophone player, the sax part will not be included, except, perhaps, in accompanying notes or charts.
Karaoke recordings are another good example of backing tracks.
Some backing tracks are good enough and complete enough, and are intended to be used as accompaniments for actual performances. Back in the day, when a visiting soloist would do a special performance at the small church I attended, they would bring a recorded backing track rather than bring their own musicians or rely on the locals. Those of us involved in music thought of that, somewhat snobishly, as “canned music”.
A backing track is different from what I call a “practice track”. Practice tracksare used by musicians to help practice their instrument. They are often produced completely digitally, with no actual musicians involved, and they are rarely, if ever, used in actual performances.

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Advantage of Practice Tracks for New Guitar Players

For the budding musician trying to learn a new instrument, music lessons - either online music lessons or private instruction - are great and important.

But learning to play along with real music, real songs is equally important. A good way of doing this is to use practice tracks.

Practice tracks (or "prax trax") are songs recorded by actual bands, or created in a digital music composition program like the free one available from Musescore.

A practice track, like the ones available at, will often have the band parts (different musical instruments) broken out so you can see the written music for the part you are interested in.

So, for instance, if you are a new guitar player you'll find practice tracks of both simple songs and easy-to-follow exercises.

Not only will you see the music, but you can actually play the musical arrangement right in your internet browser. And you'll be able to play along with, learning the song and refining your technique at your own pace.

It's definitely the way to go.

Here's an example of a well known popular hit from just a year or two ago - Hey, Soul Sister.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Learning to Read Music: Play Scales

Yes, it sounds boring and like the kind of thing only music geeks like doing, but playing scales is really the best and easiest way to get to know written music.
 So you understand the basics (as outlined in the previous series of posts: Reading Music for Guitar Beginners. Now it’s time to put this knowledge into practice.
It may sound too good to be true, but once you understand these basics, “learning to read” is just a matter of practice, practice, practice
It's no secret. The more you practice with written music, the more you will understand and become familiar with it, and the more you will understand how it can help you with your guitar playing.
For a description of some practice tips, check out things to do before beginning serious work on scales and songs.
Most new guitar players will begin with the C Scale because it has no sharps or flats and has you going from A3 up to B1 (and another octave up to E8).
Here is a simple exercise for the C Major Scale starting at A3. Here is one of the C Major Scale going from B1 to E8 (high E 8)…
The best way to practice these and ingrain both the note positions on the staff and the physical positions on the fretboard is to say the notes as you play them.
Two more relatively easy scales, and commonly used in songs are G and D…
Another very popular key is D. Here is a D Major Scale Exercise starting at D0.
D Major Scale
Practice these scales on a regular basis and soon “reading” will become second nature.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Learning to Read Music: Musical "Keys"

If you've ever been in a band, played or sang at a special event, or sung in a choir, you've probably heard your fellow musicians say something like:

"This one is played in the key of F".

What this means is that the note "F" is the natural home to which you return as you sing or play the song. This is fairly difficult to explain, but has two very practical results for the musicians.

1. The key determines the pitch range you have to work within.
2. The key tells us which notes are to be played as sharps or flats.

Let's have a brief look at these two things...

1. Pitch Range 

Imagine you're singing a solo at the Christmas concert at your school. You're going to sing the song "Joy to the World". 

You give it a try at rehearsal, but it doesn't go too well at first. You can't hit the high notes!

Your piano player says "We're doing it in the key of F. I guess that's too high for you. Let's try it in D."

You try it and it works. You can hit all the high notes and all the low notes.

What has changed?

It's actually pretty simple. Every song contains a range of notes organized around a "home" note. In the song "Joy to the World" that natural home happens to be both the first note of the song, and the last note (an octave lower).

If you try singing it in the key of F, you know that you'll have to hit both a high F and a low F. If you're not able to do that, just try moving the natural home lower.

That natural home note is also called the "root" or "tonic". The song "Joy to the World" is built around a major scale with the root (or tonic) as the first note (the lowest one) and the last note (an octave higher.) 

2. Sharps and Flats

As I've previously pointed out, songs are built on scales. And scales have a starting point that determines the pitch range used in the song.

But that isn't all. 

Without going into a lot of detail, let's just say that every major scale has the same pattern. It consists of 8 notes (if you include both the starting and ending notes), and the pitch gaps between those notes is the same from scale to scale.

This piano keyboard gives us a graphic way to look at this. If you start on C and play a series of white notes you will come to C again, eight notes higher. These white notes represent what are called "natural notes" - C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C.

But some notes in the sequence are separated by a black note, and some are not. In fact there are only two note pairs that don't have a black note between them: E-F and B-C.

The notes on the piano are all a semi-tone apart. And as we can see, most of the time the notes of the C scale are two semi-tones - or a full tone - apart. 

But in two cases they are only one semi-tone apart.

That gives us a major scale pattern with the sequence of tones (or "steps") and semi-tones (or "half steps") changing as the anchor point of the scale changes.

If the anchor point is C we will play (or sing) one set of notes, centered around C. But if we move the anchor point up to D or E or G, the song will be centered at a different point and, as a result, the set of actual notes we sing or play will be different.

And here's where sharps and flats come in: the gaps between the notes will be the same, but because of the irregularity of the whole-step/half-step pattern, the non-natural notes (sharps or flats) will fall in different places.

Just to take a fairly simple example, the song "Ode to Joy" starts out: (where the number is the note of the major scale): 3-3-4-5-5-4-3-2. In the key of C this would be E-E-F-G-G-F-E-D, but in the key of D it would be F#-F#-G-A-A-G-F#-E.

How the musical staff helps simplify this

As we said at the beginning, changing the key of a song has these two important effects for the singer or instrumentalist.

First, it pushes the range of musical tones in the song either up or down.

And second, we end up playing some notes as sharps and flats, because the gaps between notes fall in different places.

For the singer this second point is not significant. But for the guitarist, pianist, or trumpeter, etc. it is very important. Because now it means some notes have to be played as sharps or flats; and the song sounds terrible if you screw that up.

What the musical staff allows us to do is to indicate that we are playing in a "key" where certain notes are to be played sharp or flat all the time (unless otherwise indicated).

The use of the staff allows us to put the complicated musical theory aside and just focus on playing the correct notes.

*To keep it simple, C# and Db are the same note - the note between C and D. When we're thinking in terms of sharps - e.g., in the key of D - we think of this note as C#. But when we're thinking in terms of flats - e.g., in the key of Gb - we think of this note as Db. 

Check out more articles on music theory for guitar.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Proper Fingering Technique for New Guitar Players

You will find fingering the strings of the guitar a bit awkward for the first while.

Eventually (after a week or so of  serious practice) you will build up callouses on your fingers and the initial pain will not be there.

The correct technique for fingering is to spread your four fingers out over the first four frets, one finger per fret.

Your thumb should be placed behind the neck to add leverage to your fingers. Classical guitar players learn to keep their thumb back there. Just about everybody else tends to wrap their thumb around the neck to varying degrees, depending on the string(s) you are fingering.

The point I want to emphasize here is the "one finger/one fret" technique. Try not to move your hand up and down the neck unless the fret you are going for is out of range of the designated finger. Discipline yourself to use finger one on fret one, finger two on fret two, finger three on fret three, and finger 4 (your pinky) on fret 4.

Use these same fingers across the different strings. For example when playing A3 use finger 3, when playing G2 use finger 2, and so on.

Press down on the string behind and as close to the appropriate fret as you can to get a nice clean sound. At first the notes will probably sound muddy and weak. Just keep working on it and it will eventually start to sound better.

See this website for more guitar instruction for starters.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Twinkle, Twinkle for New Guitar Players

"Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" is a popular English lullaby based on a poem by English poet Jane Taylor.
It was first published in 1806 as a nursery rhyme in Rhymes for the Nursery, a collection of poems by Taylor and her sister Ann.
The melody is from an old French tune Ah! vous dirai-je, maman, which was published in 1761. The tune was arranged by several composers, including Mozart.
This version is available in C, D, A and G.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Learning to Read Music - Rests

Rests – where you don’t play anything
A sometimes overlooked element of written music is the rest
A rest indicates when you don’t play anything. The beat keeps going, but you don't play or sing when a rest is indicated.
Special symbols designate rests of different lengths.
The usual note values - whole note, half note, quarter note, eighth and sixteenth - these note values each have a comparable rest. Here's what rests look like, with their values.

Go here for a more detailed description of symbols used on the standard staff .

Friday, June 8, 2018

Why learn the guitar fretboard?

There are a whole bunch of notes on the guitar fretboard, so if you are going to give it a go, you’d better give it a good effort.
Lots of guitar players think it is not worth spending a whole lot of time on learning the fretboard, especially if you just want to strum along to singing.
But if you want to improve your playing, and if you want to know your way around traditional music scores,  learning more about the guitar fretboard will definitely make you more versatile. Rhythm guitar players, will  learn chord options you didn’t see before – different chord shapes and root positions, chords on two or three or four strings, and so on.
Bass guitar players will have many more options. Having a good grasp of the fretboard will open up alternatives you didn't think of before. You will see new options for arpeggios and bass runs which can only  make you a better, more interesting bass guitar player.
For lead guitar players, knowing the fretboard has obvious advantages. You'll see possibilities you didn’t think of before, note combinations you weren't aware of and your playing will be more interesting.
Finally,  you’ll be able to play in any key. When somebody says “F” you’ll know exactly where that is in a bunch of different places on the fretboard, and you'll be able to make use of the most appropriate position.
Learn the fretboard to become a better all around musician.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Just a Few Basics Before Going Too Far with the Guitar

Here are a few things you should know as you begin playing the guitar...

1. Learn the Names of the Strings

To get anywhere on the guitar you have to learn the names of the strings. That means, first, what notes each of them is tuned to. For instance you must know that string 2 (the second thinnest) is tuned to B. String 1 is referred to as High E, and string 6 is referred to as Low E.

 Especially if you're learning to read standard musical notation (which a lot of guitar players don't do). In order to give your music reading a boost you should know where you can find each of the open strings on the staff. If you're not sure, check out this Open String exercise and learn this stuff cold.

2. Fingering Hand Technique For righties (that's most guitar players) your "fingering hand" is your left hand.

Think "classic position": with your fingers spread out over the first four frets, one finger per fret.

Try not to move you hand a lot as you finger different fret positions. Discipline yourself to use finger one on fret one, finger two on fret two, finger three on fret three, and finger 4 (your pinky) on fret 4.

Use these same fingers across the different strings. For example when playing A3 use finger 3, when playing G2 use finger 2, and so on.

 Press down on the string behind and as close to the appropriate fret as you can to get a nice clean sound. At first the notes will probably sound muddy and weak. Just keep working on it and it will eventually start to sound better.

3. Picking Hand Technique

Your picking hand (right hand for righties) Assuming you're using a pick, hold it between your thumb and forefinger resting on your (slightly tucked) middle finger as pictured here.

The pick is usually aligned, more or less, with the forefinger, and the tip of the pick protrudes roughly 1/4″ beyond the fingers.

This allows you to keep your hand fairly close to the strings, and makes it easy to control the movement of the pick.

If too much of the pick protrudes from the fingers it becomes difficult to be precise with your picking action.

4. Anchor your picking hand...

This is a matter of personal preference, but many guitar players will anchor their picking hand somewhere on the body of the guitar to make it easier to control the picking motion. As you can see in the accompanying picture (illustrating how to hold the pick), the lower part of the hand can be anchored on the bridge (depending on what sort of guitar you are using).

Another common way is to is to use you bottom two fingers stretched out and resting below the strings.

5. Alternate the Picking Direction

You won't appreciate this right at the beginning, but every guitar instructor will tell you to "use alternate picking". Say you're playing 4 notes one after the other. Alternate picking means play note 1 with a down stroke and note 2 with an up stroke; note 3 with a down stroke, and note 4 with an upstroke.

The reason for this is quite simple. It is more efficient and faster to use a combination of up and down strokes rather than all down strokes as you would just naturally do.

Try to be fairly religious about this. You will eventually learn that alternate picking may not be appropriate in every case, but it will be good to get into the habit very early on. You can make adjustments when you feel more at home on the instrument.

6. Systematic Practice Makes Perfect

It goes without saying that you cannot get better if you don't practice. But it is important to recognize that some practice times will be more productive than others.

Here are some suggestions:
- Don't be closed minded. Keep your options open - listen to a variety of music and be open to different styles: e.g., rock, pop, folk, country, etc.

- Find a teaching resource (teacher, online lessons, instructional book) that is suitable to your level of development, and overall objectives.

- Practice songs you like, but also practice more generic skills such as scales, arpeggios, learning to read, alternate chord shapes, etc.

 - Play along with practice tracks to give you an idea of how you can do in a group.

 - Jam with friends. Create a band.

  Have fun.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Havana - Easy Guitar Chords

This popular song by Camila Cabello uses just two chords through the entire song: Am and E. Havana practice track

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Achy Breaky Heart is a great 2 Chord Song

Achy Breaky Heart was a smash hit back in the 90s, and gave rise to hordes of line dancing young ladies. Apart from being a great tune to hum and dance along with it is a great tune for beginning guitar players. Just 2 chords and you can strum along with the entire song. And we have a great arrangement in several keys. Right here...Achy Breaky Heart. You don't have to play the notes as they're written. You can just strum along as it plays in your browser.