I’ve been doing a little self-directed learning lately. And it came about because someone told me about Larrivée guitars. Although I hadn’t heard of them till a couple of months ago, I can assure you they’re out of this world–one has been on the international space station for years.
I play guitar, not very well. Mostly I strum chords, because I like to sing. But in that conversation I mentioned, my friend encouraged me to think about getting a quality instrument. That suggestion came at a good time; although I’m not quite ready to spring even for a used Larrivée, I did start picking up the somewhat battered classical guitar I bought when I was in college.
For much of that time I’ve kept a couple of books on fingerpicking. Every so often I’ll work through one or the other, and when I sense some improvement, I feel pretty good. In addition, because I’ve been on a Zachary Richard kick lately, I’ve been trying to learn a couple of his songs, like Travailler, c’est trop dur (link to a video and an English translation on my French-language blog).
That was one track: doing more with my own guitar. A second track was to find out more about Larrivée guitars, and there seem to be few better places than the Larrivée online forum.
When I enter a new community like this, I wander around for a bit and don’t say too much too soon, unless I can contribute something positive, if only to my experience with a guitar-tuning app for Android phones.
I saw that someone on the forum was selling some DVDs–tutorials for fingerpicking. Turns out they feature Happy Traum, a prolific and popular guitarist and instructor. In fact, one of those instruction books I’ve hung onto for so long is his.
Even if you don’t play an instrument, you can get a sense of Happy’s relaxed, encouraging approach:
That sealed it for me, and the DVDs arrived last weekend. As Bill Deterline said, “Things take longer than they do,” so I’m not fooling myself about how quickly I’ll pick up the techniques in the DVDs.
I can’t help but notice the interplay between what’s essentially a lecture–Happy Traum on DVD, explaining and demonstrating–and the invitation to not simply practice, but to actively modify your practice in order to expand you abilities.
Fundamentally, this is a tightly focused relationship. In effect, Happy’s done instructional design around a specific topic: not just “fingerpicking styles” (content alone) but “how to help a beginner learn to fingerpick.”
He can’t see you or hear you, and he probably doesn’t have enough time in his schedule to work with every student one-to-one. Instead, he starts by slowly and carefully demonstrating and explaining fundamentals. It’s show-and-tell so you can hear-and-do (or at least hear-and-try).
The first thing we should work on is your steady thumb… Keep a bass going relentlessly, so that you always have that pulse underneath your picking… The ability to keep that thumb going while you’re doing whatever else… You have to develop the facility for doing that. It’s kind of like reprogramming your brain…
First thing we’ll do, just do it on one string… Do this with me…
Within a few minutes of that, he adds:
- “The most basic melody note” — add a treble note by plucking the first string on just the first beat
- Switch the treble note to the second string, still on the first beat
- The second string on the first and the third beat
- “Now let’s try putting a note on the first and second beat, but leave the third and fourth alone.”
- Same thing, but with the second string.
- Alternating between the first and second string (first string on the first beat, second string on the third beat).
I don’t want to keep quoting from the DVD, but I do think that attendees at more than one learning conference could profit from seeing how deftly Happy introduces complexity at a rate that challenges but (mostly likely) doesn’t frustrate the beginner.
(As for badges–when you’re able to get through “Skip to My Lou” at a normal pace, with the steady thumb-beat and the melody in the upper strings, you’ll have all the badge you need for attaining that particular level.)
Probably some people could figure this out on their own, but I suspect that as with so many other fields, beginning guitar players can feel overwhelmed, not knowing what to pay attention to or what’s an optimal way to proceed. Brownie McGhee certainly didn’t learn guitar from a DVD — but Happy Traum learned from McGhee, and depending on your access to an in-person teacher and your interest in guitar, you can learn from Happy’s DVD.
To emphasize the variety of things that people mean when they say “learning,” I often talk about learning a language. Does learning mean mastering basic grammar? Reading literature in that language? Watching movies without subtitles? It depends on context.
And that’s true with “learning the guitar.” There are some areas that most people would agree on–you probably need to know what standard tuning is, and probably need to know the basic fingering for chords. So there’s explicit knowledge as a foundation for tacit knowledge (it’s one thing to know what the tuning is, it’s another to actually tune). Beyond such fundamentals, there’s the melody or song you want to play, and there’s the integration of all this into a performance.
I’m not performing much yet. One of my mid-term goals is to improve enough that I could try a Larrivée in a store without completely embarrassing myself. We’ll see how that works out.