Guitar Tip: Lead fingers and Pivot fingers

Playing chords on the guitar is not too bad. Even the difficult ones can be played without much trouble…as long as you’re not playing it in the middle of a song.

With a little effort it’s easy to put your fingers in the right place and make the chord sound decent.

The trouble is switching to the chord from another chord – in time. In other words, going from chord to chord at the speed of the song is not as easy as it seems.

Here’s something to think about that might help. When switching from chord to chord there are a couple of things you can watch for. Learning how to play guitar is largely about teaching your own fingers to move how and where you want them.

Here’s the secret: they have natural tendencies.

Pivot Fingers

Pay attention to where your fingers are. A prime example of a pivot finger is when going from the D chord to the G chord. Most people play the G Chord like this (numbers represent fingers, starting with pointer finger #1):

g-chord

When you look at the D chord, the ring finger (#3) is in the same position as it is in the G chord:

d-chord

The 3 finger (ring finger) becomes the pivot finger. Like a dancer rotates her body on a single foot, a guitar player can (more or less) rotate his hand on a single finger.

So, when going from the D-chord to the G-chord, you can keep your 3 finger in place. Don’t lift it.

Many beginning players let their whole hand off the neck to switch chords, but it’s not necessary. Leaving the 3 finger in place allows the hand to quickly and easily pivot around to play the G-chord without looking.

Playing chords without looking is actually an important goal for a player. One of the methods to get there is to utilize pivot fingers when you find them.

Here’s a video about it:

Lead Fingers

Before trying to play chords without looking, feel free to look. In fact, be very observant. Using the same chords as above, when going from the D-chord to the G-chord, something else natural happens: there’s a leader.

Yes, watch closely. One of your fingers will usually get there first. My lead finger going from D to G is my middle finger (#2). It gets there first every time.

Why is this important?

Here’s a principle everyone needs to know: A leader has followers.

Interestingly, the same applies to your fingers. Sounds strange, but if you’ve spent even a small amount of time teaching your fingers where they should go for a particular chord, you start to see this happen. Your non-lead fingers will naturally fall into their place.

g-chord

For instance, if my lead finger is my 2 finger to the G-chord, and I utilize my pivot finger (#3), my other two will go right to their positions.

Fingers 1 and 4 know right where to go.

And this is just an example. This even works for bar chords, and other irregular chords. In fact, this principle is so important, you may not be able to switch effectively without it.

The reason is of the alternative: flyaway fingers. The closer your fingers can stay to the strings the better.

Utilizing Pivot Fingers and Lead Fingers will allow you to play more and more efficiently. Watch your fingers – try not to let them pull out and move more than necessary. In no time, you will be able to go from chord to chord at the speed of the song, and do it with fluidity.

Lead Fingers Video:

Keep at it!

Music Lessons and Leadership

Music Lessons and Leadership

Part of the reason I like to do a guitar class (as opposed to individual lessons) is because it helps train students to play with a group. It trains them to really listen to one another as they play together.

When people play together, they lead.

Even bands who perform are leading – they persuade with their music. Very often, performers call on the audience to interact and participate. They are leading.

As Christians, leadership is particularly important. What do performing Christians persuade their hearers to do? What do they call their audience to think on and participate in? What is most important? Is their music quality directly proportional to how well their music persuades?

I want to help give you the motivation and the resources and skills to play well and to lead well.  Playing well means nothing without being able to use your skills for others.  In addition, you cannot lead music well without being able to play well.  In music, especially as Christians, playing and leading are intertwined, for we must lead others toward our great God without distracting them from where their true focus must be (that’s another post for another day).

David was an excellent model of playing and leading together.  He was described in 1 Samuel 16:18 as one who is “skillful in playing, a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence, and the Lord is with him.” Expounding this verse, I want to inspire and equip people towards the following six things:

  1. For their musicianship to be noticeable and loved
  2. To have great boldness and bravery in life
  3. To be able to think strategically, practically and logically in a music leadership setting
  4. To be articulate and wise in their speech as they lead others
  5. To be confident, at peace and alert
  6. To be humble and aware of the Lord’s presence and authority

What kind of musician you are matters.

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Getting over the Blank Canvas

Getting over the Blank Canvas

Sometimes playing music can start with as much of a blank canvas as painting. Even if there is a sheet of paper with notes or chords on it in front of you, players or groups still get this familiar sense: “Where do I start?”

For instance, a guitar player, bassist, drummer and a singer get together to play. If there is no set songs to play, it’s worse, but even if there are songs that have been chosen, they still must decide how to start.

Or, when a beginning guitar player picks up his or her guitar to play, they play around on chords, but how do you put them together? How should they strum?

A large part of this blog is to help get over this hurdle. I hope to offer tips that help get over this “blank canvas” feeling.

I enjoy the visual arts as well and have felt this many times. It comes with the territory…and you don’t realize how tall that mountain is until you get right up next to it. In other words, until you pick up your pencil, brush, guitar pick, drum sticks or get together as a band and begin to play, you don’t realize that the squatty thing in the distance was Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Every artist must learn to overcome this feeling. And you can too.

So here’s the first tip: Imitate

One of the best principles I’ve found for learning anything is to try to copy what someone else has done.

This is called “mimesis” in classical education circles. It’s why God wanted Moses to write the song in Deuteronomy 31-32. It’s why Jesus asked those men to follow Him. It’s why Paul and the other apostles told the churches to imitate God and Christ in love (cf. Eph 5:1-2). It’s why the apostles not only told the churches to imitate them (2 Thess 3:7-9), but to also consider the outcome of the way of life of their leaders and imitate them (Heb 13:7).

Back to music. This is fairly easy to do these days with guitar. Find a song. Find the chords. Play along.

(Simply type in the name of the song in google with “lyrics and chords” next to it and you should find something.)

I have led worship music for much of my life and these types of songs are wonderful to use.

Number two: Consistent and Simple is Best

Secondly, remember that it is more important to be consistent with something simple than to try to do too much. If you’re by yourself, it’s better to work yourself up to the more complex thing. If you’re with a band, the same applies – it’s better to work up to the more complex thing than try something too complicated…even if one person can do it so easily.

It’s a trap.

Just work on being consistent with something simple – on your skill level – first.

For instance, as a band, try this. Strip the chords to their bare bones by only playing the chords shown at major places (like the down beats – or maybe even just the 1 count).

As a beginner guitarist, try this: play a D chord until you have mastered it, and don’t move on until you can close your eyes and put your hand in the right place. Or if you’ve mastered the D chord, try using the D to practice switching to a chord you don’t know as well, and go back and forth. Master that.

Work on being consistent with something simple.

I know there are many things going on that can cause a musician to freeze up, quit in frustration, or simply get bored. Remember you are training yourself (even as a band), to hear well and play well. It’s ear training as well as muscle memory training.

Stay the course!

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Guitar Tip: String Names

String names is actually an interesting subject. I try to tell my students that the names of the strings are for more than just knowing “chords.” They are actually notes.

I mean, for many guitar players, there is only one practical use for knowing the string names. It gives them a way to know where to put their fingers. They might as well use the string numbers: 1, 2, 3, etc. You could build chords this way just as easily. Now, this is just fine as a start, but all you need to know is which finger, which fret, and which string.

In this case, the name of the string is irrelevant. We might as well call string 5 “Albert” from now on, and string 4, “Doug.”

Seriously. Not really.

The name represents the note

String names are important because the name represents the note. This may or may not seem obvious or important. In other words, The D-string is named as such precisely because it was designed to be a D note.

And, incidentally, the D string only goes in one place. When you install a string designed to be a G in the D-string position, it’s probably going to sound weird. Worse, when you put the D-string in the G-string position, it’s probably going to break. The D-string wasn’t designed to be tightened beyond a certain point, and when you try to tighten it up to the G note, it goes past its design tension.

String names orient the student to the notes that are being played when they are “open” (plucked without a finger pressed on it).

The names must alert the student more and more to the actual note. Then, when an ‘Em’ is played, they would know that the note being played on the A-string is actually a B note. Likewise, the note being played on the D-string is actually an E note. Therefore, the notes being played (strummed) are like this:

  • E-string (low):  E note
  • A-string:  B note
  • D-string:  E note
  • G-string:  G note
  • B-string:  B note
  • E-string:  E note

The Triad

This leads to something crucial. When you look close, there are only three different notes being played: E, B, G

This is hugely important because three different notes together is what makes a chord. It’s called a triad.

Test out any other chord and you will find the same thing: though the guitar has 6 strings, you will almost always be playing some version of a triad.

The Tip

To summarize, here’s my tip: Know that string names are notes. They are merely links in a chain; pieces to a whole. The bigger picture is the musical scale, moving two octaves from the open low E to the open high E.

Here’s how it looks on a piano:

tune-guitar-to-piano

If you know the piano keyboard, note that “middle C” is the C furthest to the right, just to the right of the B. Therefore, most of the notes are below middle C.

Memorize the string names, and know that they are actually notes!

There are many ways to memorize the string names, but several of my students made this up: Every Aawesome Dog Goes Bonkers Easily!

Piano Fingers Tip

Holding your fingers properly as you play piano is very important. It’s as important with any instrument, for that matter.

I’d just like to point out a few things that affect finger position for piano.

Posture

First, posture is a big deal. It’s very hard to play properly if there’s any slouching going on. It’s not a good habit. The reason is that it pulls the wrists down. The arms get “heavy” as you slouch and the wrists find themselves resting on the keybed (the little piece of wood that sticks out past the keys). In turn, this pulls the fingers down so that the fingers are nearly flat on the keys. Try and sit straight with shoulders down.

Height

Ultimately, this refers to how high the elbows are. If a child is too low, she has to reach up to the keys. This is basically the same resulting problem as slouching, but the child cannot do anything about it. Her posture may be perfect. The solution is to give her something to sit on.

A related issue for children is that they have nothing to rest their feet on usually. They typically just swing above the floor. When she has something to rest her feet on, her lower back is actually supported better, which results in more confident playing. She will play more confidently when she is not (subliminally) distracted by trying to hold herself up differently. Comfy is good.

Stress

This is actually probably the biggest one (as I’ve mentioned before). When you’re stressed, muscles are tense, and everything travels north. Shoulders go up, breath goes to the chest, and fingers go up. Take some breaths and relax. If you’re too stressed, get up and walk around a bit. It is hard work to train your fingers, and can be frustrating. Keep tabs on your turmoil.

Finger position is important. Give them every opportunity to succeed by watching your posture, height and stress level. Then give them time. Keep working at it!

On Music and Leadership

Music is used for a huge variety of reasons.  Most of the time it is used to “move” people to feel a certain way.  Many have used it negatively – to manipulate; but many have used it positively – to motivate and stir up hope and faith.

Music is very powerful, even as a memory tool.  In Deuteronomy 31 and 32, Moses is commanded by God to write a song that Joshua was to use to help lead the people in righteousness.  They were to remember who God is and what He had done for them by singing this song over and over.  They were to remember the warnings issued to the wicked, lest they follow in their ways.  I believe music is most powerful when it is played skillfully in conjunction with truth – the kind of truth that God has revealed in His Word.

Therefore, we should not be trying to “move” people to feel a certain way, but to think in a certain way – to live by faith, despite what they see.  The music becomes the background or setting for this truth.  Like a great painting, it draws your attention in a particular way to a particular spot.  The intent here is to lead people to draw their attention to a planned “focal point” – the message (often in the lyrics). Ultimately, our Maker is the primary focus.

It should be noted that though not all want to lead, all do lead in one way or another.  My courses are intended to shape natural leadership skills I believe everyone has (cf Gen 1:26-28).  To balance this, I believe that though God created us to “have dominion” and “rule and subdue” the earth, He has also created us to serve with humility.  In fact, this is primary, for it has everything to do with how we worship.  We serve by leading.  This helps protect us from our efforts to draw attention to ourselves.

To be clear, I am not training you to be a rock star in these courses.  I will be training and equipping you to serve.

That said, from the very beginning I will be calling your instrument a “tool”.  Knowing the Lord uses us as His own tools, we must now see that what man has made is also a tool.  If you are learning guitar, it is only a tool.  If you are learning drums, it is only a tool.  We use hammers and wrenches to build houses and fences, right?  We must also see our musical instruments as supplementary tools for building God’s people.

Feel the rhythm: A tip for drummers

Feel the rhythm: A tip for drummers

Drumming is an amazing and satisfying activity, but it can have its challenging side, too. One of the challenges to playing the trap set (for instance) is getting all your limbs to do something different, but work together.

Now, there are several things to figure out at once: tempo (speed), dynamics (loudness), syncopation (playing notes and accents at different times), and four limbs to use. This feels a bit daunting, and students can quickly send all their mental energy to the tips of their fingers and toes.

This doesn’t sound at all bad – after all, isn’t that what they’re using to play?

True, but rhythm doesn’t start at the fingers and toes. It doesn’t start in your brain or on your lips either. Counting is necessary (even out loud), but counting with your mind or with your lips does not necessarily unify your limbs. They can still be a little bit off (in drummer language, every note is more like a flam), and it sounds very choppy.

So my tip is really for any musician, but it happens to be especially crucial for a drummer: Feel the rhythm.

What? Right – feel it, but not in your fingers and toes, and not in your mind or off your lips.

No. Feel it in your core. Your torso. Your center.

Sound strange?

When you “count” using your center mast – your chest – all your limbs follow. Relax and let your body feel the rhythm.

Try practicing this while listening to music. Don’t play. Just listen and try to feel the rhythm in your chest. No, you won’t feel it physically (unless the volume and bass is turned up really loud), but try and allow yourself to naturally move to it. Go ahead and dance, but let it start at your core.

The more you can train yourself to feel the rhythm in your chest, the more free your limbs will be to follow. Otherwise, they will try and lead, but that works about as well as one sibling trying to manipulate another by using a parent.

Unify your limbs by feeling the rhythm in the center of your body.

feel_the_rhythm

Guitar Tuning: Tip 4

So far, I’ve suggested that in tuning the guitar, you simply try and get close, let both strings ring as you tune, and to reach around the front of your guitar as you tune.

I wanted to add to these this time by confirming both the overall method of tuning to your own guitar, and and to say this very simply:

Tip 4: Make sure you are turning the correct tuning peg!

I can’t tell you how easy it is to accidentally turn the wrong one as a beginner. Trace the string. Remember you are not turning the one that your finger is pushing down.

If you keep turning the wrong one, you will be purchasing a new string. I don’t know how it happens, but somehow, people usually end up tightening instead of loosening…so tight that it pops. And it’s quite the shock if you think you are tuning a different string (and nothing is happening). All of a sudden – WHAP!

All this to say – keep an eye on which tuning peg you are turning. Make sure you are turning the correct one.

Need to see? Here’s a video:

Tuning an acoustic guitar: Overview

The overall process of tuning a guitar isn’t too bad. Here’s my suggested method.

  1. Base your tuning on the A string. In other words, if it’s not super loose, just use the A where it is. In the words, you won’t tune the A string – you’ll only use it to tune the others.
  2. Tune the D string based on the A string. Hold down the A string on the 5th fret and pluck both strings at the same time. You are listening for both strings to sound alike.
  3. If they do not sound alike, reach around the front of the guitar with your right hand while still holding the A string down (5th fret) with your left. Remember: just get close!
  4. Turn the last tuning peg on the top as needed (the D string peg). Turning the peg away (counter clockwise) should be up, and toward you (clockwise) is down. Small amounts of turning usually does the trick.
  5. Tune all the other strings in like manner except one: the B string. All other strings utilize the 5th fret except this one. To tune the B, press down the G string on the 4th fret and go through the same process.
  6. After you have tuned the high E (the one on the bottom), go back to tune the low E (on top). You will use the A string for this one as well, only this time, press your finger on the A string 5th fret and pluck both the A and low E string. Generally, you will go through steps 2-4 above, but turn the first tuning peg on top instead of the farthest.
  7. Play a chord or two to check yourself. Pluck one string at a time while holding down the chord. Most likely, your ear will be able to tell you if something is off. If so, go back to check by using steps 2-4.

Now I’ll simplify the above (summarize):

  1. Tune the D string with the A (5th fret), plucking both – then turning the peg (I tell my students: “Pluck and Turn”).
  2. Tune the G string with the D (5th fret), then the B string using the G (4th fret), and the E string using the B (5th fret).
  3. Tune the low E with the A (5th fret).

I hope this is helpful.

If you have a piano or keyboard, here’s a PDF of general instructions for both methods (the above, and also tuning using a piano).

Piano Finger Flyaways

“Flyways” are simply the name of the fingers that tend to raise up higher than the others. That’s what call them anyway:

child-finger-playing-piano

One reason this happens is because the fingers are not strong enough to push down by themselves, and they feel like they need some help. Most commonly, the ring finger is the weakest, and when pressed, it seems like it needs some help, and the other fingers raise up to give it a little extra help to push down.

Sometimes, like in the picture above, motor skills and dexterity are still developing. The other fingers go up because the child is learning how to use his individual fingers. Other times, for any age, the tendency is to want to see the note “happening.” In other words, like an artist wanting to see where he puts his paint brush, the early piano player feels as if he needs to physically see the note being played.

Another related issue is anxiety. Yes, our bodies tense up and tend to pull everything towards our head. It seems crazy, but think about what happens physiologically when you get tense. Have you noticed your shoulders go up to your ears? Even your breathing tends to be towards your head – in your chest – very short and shallow breaths.

The fingers can go up from nervousness as well.

Practice relaxing at home while you play. Tense up your fingers, arms, shoulders and head/face as tight as you can for three seconds and let it loose. Take a breath (or seven) and try almost visualizing the pressure draining out of your head.

That’s a physiological exercise (among many) you can try, but here’s another thing which is easier to say than do:

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” –Proverbs 3:5-6

Very appropriate, I would say.

The fingers will come down in time. Just like learning anything, the repetition will strengthen the fingers, give students a chance to know the music enough to play with out trying to “see” it being played, and end up relaxing them because they are discovering they can do it!

Guitar Tuning: Tip 3

The previous guitar tuning tip was about letting both strings ring as you tune. The next tip is related.

Remember that these tuning tips have been using the method of tuning the guitar to itself. In the example I’ve been using (tuning the D), it will be easy to accidentally let go of the A string. Do your best to keep the A string pushed down on the 5th fret.

Now, be sure you are holding the guitar properly (whether sitting or standing). After you pluck both strings, letting them ring:

Tip 3: Reach around the front of the guitar with your right hand.

Since your left hand is holding the A string down, your right is free after you pluck the strings. You will turn the farthest tuning peg on the top of the guitar head, connected to the D string.

Here’s a video explanation:

Sidenote:

One of the other ways of tuning a guitar is by using harmonics. Here’s a simple explanation if you like. It’s a little more advanced. One advantage to this method is that no reaching is required.