I received a nice email from a student who attended a recent workshop at Dusty Strings in Seattle. The specific workshop topic involved an “easy” way to visualize the guitar neck. His post-workshop question dealt mostly with developing an effective practice regimen. I have also included some other thoughts on how to become a better guitarist and musician.
Learning to know the neck of the guitar is akin to a piano player being able to play in higher octaves. This is easy for a pianist, as each octave on the piano looks the same. Not so for the acoustic guitar, unless you have a cutaway to the 24th fret!
Initially I learned the neck largely by learning tunes I was attracted to, each of which would provide some new position or voicing. I did this by ear, wearing out turntables and tape decks in the process.
Over time, I put that learning-by-ear approach together with my theory training and developed my own method of incorporating the whole fretboard into a fingerstyle soloist approach. For me that approach includes my triad ideas, scales everywhere on the neck, barre chords, partial barres, moving the CAGED chord shapes up the neck (with and without a capo), scales around the CAGED shapes, parallel sixths and thirds, and much more – all of that in all the guitar keys. Sounds daunting!
Learning tunes from recordings was great not only for learning the guitar neck, but it was also great ear training. Memorizing these tunes so that I could perform them was great for training the brain to always think ahead – to be able to “hear” and anticipate what’s coming.
The importance of learning tunes from a recording can’t be overstated. By playing along, you practice rhythm, tone, phrasing, structure, steady tempo, balance of voices, dynamics and much more. You have to be more disciplined about keeping a steady tempo than you do when you are reading music without an audio guide – playing along with a recording forces you to maintain the tempo and to play through errors. There are digital capabilities available these days to help you slow down a recording to a manageable tempo without changing the pitch. In the old days I turned my 33-rpm turntable down to 16 to get half speed, but the pitch was down an octave!
For specific examples of tunes to learn by ear, I suggest you find some early Bert Jansch tunes: “It Don’t Bother Me,” “I Have No Time,” “Ramblin’s Gonna Be the Death of Me,” “Needle of Death” (the inspiration for Neil Young’s “Needle and the Damage Done”). These are all vocal tunes, but the guitar part most often includes the melody, so they can serve as fingerstyle guitar solos.
To give you a head start, these are all in standard tuning except “Ramblin’,” which uses drop-D. Experiment with capo positions to match his pitch. Then dive in to find the chord voicings and the fingerpicking patterns. They are all alternating-bass “Travis Picking.” Avoid using notation/tablature unless you are completely stymied. If you do use it, don’t slavishly follow it. Use it to find the positions, then ferret out the notes by listening. Bert was so inventive, and was such an inspiration to so many fingerstyle players – including me – that he is worth studying, even these many decades after the tunes were recorded. (Bert toured as Neil Young’s opening act a few years ago. He died in 2011.)
You asked about what percentage of your playing time you should devote to exercises: I could give you a number to shoot for, but rather, I suggest you do what feels right each day. After warming up, spend as much time as you can on scales, moveable chord voicings, etc., but be sure to spend at least an equal amount of time keeping your repertoire up and adding to it – making music, in other words. (I spend much more of my playing time on that.) And, most importantly, have fun along the way!