Tag Archives: guitar

stefan grossman is the real deal, if you ask me

I’m still playing my little parlor guitar most evenings, sometimes just for a few minutes, but enough anyway so that my callouses don’t disappear. I think it is so amazing (and ironic) how playing the blues can make me so happy. It totally has this power.

Here is a wonderful video of Stefan Grossman, my teacher—I think of him that way, I hope he doesn’t mind, because I have SO enjoyed his many teaching videos—playing some terrific blues thirty years ago and cracking jokes while he does so. Maybe the blues makes him happy, too:

Here he is again, talking about how he started playing guitar as a kid, taking lessons at 5 bucks a pop from the legendary Rev. Gary Davis over in a shack in Brooklyn (wow!), plus some fancy picking of Mr. Davis’s song, “Twelve Sticks.”

And one more vid, to bring it all up to the present, here he is playing in 2010 with blues master Keb Mo at the Crossroads Festival in Chicago. This whole video is terrific but if you want to see some awesome double slide guitar, go to the 5 minute mark, you won’t regret it:

It’s been delightful this last year and a half, leisurely working my way through a stack of Mr. Grossman’s lessons, learning country style fingerpicking and old style blues. I’m learning Shake Sugaree by Elizabeth Cotton right now, a sweet little song, from this set of lessons.

I’ve also worked through this one, this one, and dabbled in this one. I don’t know if I’ll ever be any good (lord knows I’m terrible now), but my enjoyment is the main thing. In my opinion, everybody ought to have some hobby they enjoy for no good reason, to achieve nothing, just because it’s fun. What’s yours?

run for your life, I just got a guitar slide

Oh, MAN, you have no IDEA how crazy it was around here last night when I started playing videos of old masters doing acoustic bottleneck slide guitar.  Sophie and I were so blown away by these guys doing their slide guitar magic, using a sawed off bottleneck, a pocket knife, a piece of metal tubing, whatever, for their slide.  Stefan Grossman, whose guitar videos I have been learning with for a while now, has a bottleneck blues guitar video series that I just got and we were watching his old archival footage—WOW we were so stoked we couldn’t wait to try it. 

But no slides.  What to do?  Time to raid Paul’s socket wrench collection!  We found sockets that fit both my pinky and Sophie’s ring finger, and they worked great, heavy enough to rest on the strings, but slippery enough to get that freaky, almost human-voice sound.  I’m telling you we were getting all manner of bluesy, spooky, funky sounds out of our guitars and we didn’t know what the hell we were doing.  Just imagine if we practice!  It was like a mess’a cats getting ready to kill each other in the yurt last night.  It was AWESOME.

I thought y’all ought to see some of these videos, because you know, it’s like I’ve done got religion around here.

Here is Mance Lipscomb with his pocket knife slide. The white on his strumming hand is a bandage from an injury, or so Stefan says. Mance only picks with his thumb and pointer finger, so the bandage on his ring finger doesn’t slow him down any. That’s just bad ass.

Here are two songs by Bukka White—how does he play, AND sing, AND slide, all with his eyes closed? And then he does some crazy tapping up and down the fret board, super fast. And all on this cool looking, beaten to hell, steel guitar….

And here is the man, Son House, who looks like he possessed by spirits when he plays. And his VOICE!

Stefan Grossman actually studied with this guy, Son taught him a bottleneck guitar song called Banty Rooster that he then passes on to the likes of my little white girl self on his vid. I am HOT to learn that song, but this is probably impossible.

Ain’t gonna stop me from trying though, little white girl or no.

maya vs. the guitar, 2011

It’s been a year since I got the crazy idea to learn how to play the guitar.  I can NOT believe it has been that long.  Here is my first guitar post back in June 2010 when I had just bought my guitar (well, my first guitar, I keep meaning to sell it, it’s too big and makes my shoulder hurt, but it plays SOOOOO pretty…so I stall).  Anyone who has been following along knows I started with zero guitar knowledge, but a little piano and some music theory background.  Which hand strums? That was my level of beginnerness. Anyway, a year later, I thought it might be fun to check in on my guitar-y progress.

So, my first idea for this post was to record me playing something. You know, like my yoga posts that show the State of my Backbend.  My backbend sucks, but that’s all right, because it’s fun to see the changes over time.  My guitar playing is pretty terrible, too, but along the same lines I thought…why not?

Then I sat down to do it and, well, I got all uptight and incapacitated with performance anxiety, so, um, yeah. Forget it.

Instead, I thought I would post some lovely videos of people playing songs I can play!  Isn’t that a nice work around?  I know, I know, I’m a total pussy. But hey, you don’t have to hear me fumble the roll-into-the-E-chord, or miss that hammer-on again, so believe, me, it’s a win for all of us.

So! Here is Elizabeth Cotton playing her song “Freight Train” at 93 years old, wow.

That’s right, I can play this song. And I love this song in part because she used to live in my hometown, Chapel Hill, NC, and the train she’s singing about is a train I’ve walked the tracks on my own self. Not to mention that she taught herself to play and plays the guitar upside and backwards, no kidding! She was so cool.

And I CAN play “Freight Train” only…it just doesn’t sound nearly as good when I do it. Why, why? Maybe I’m impatient, not practicing a tempo enough, but there is a spot I always flub—makes me crazy!!!—and my tone just isn’t as…rich or round, I don’t know. I’m not talking about the guitar itself, I don’t think. I think it’s a confidence in the picking.

Moving on, here is a cover of Buckdancer’s Choice, arranged by Stefan Grossman (whose videos I recommend here), played very nicely by Jwo32 on youtube, a lovely rendition…

I love this song! And I can totally play this! Which is amazing to me!!!

BUT. I can NOT get it so sound as sweet as Jwo32 (thanks Jwo32 for posting this!). I don’t know, his version sounds so clear and clean…mine often sounds muddled, and the triplet in E on the second half, ugh. My fingers just do not go quickly enough to trill that along. I always make a mush of it.

Is more practice the answer? Probably. I play 10 minutes, 20, maybe 30 minutes a day. Occasionally longer, but mostly I just pick it up and work on something for a bit until someone needs me, often at night while the kids and Paul are doing something for which I am superfluous. But I long for that crystal clear plucking, where each note sounds so true. I practice very, very slowly, trying to get that sound, and then try to work the speed up, but maybe I don’t stay slow long enough. You may not realize this about me, but I am not known for my patience in life, I admit, it, no, really, don’t try to deny it, because yes, it’s true. I suffer from impatience, sometimes, occasionally, like, every now and then, maybe once a year. You know. Constantly.

But even then, even when I can make myself play slow, it just doesn’t have that clarity. Hmmm. On this point, the guitar is still kicking my butt.

But at least I’ve got callouses now. At least I’m not whining about how my fingers hurt. Maybe next year’s guitar up-date will show some improvements along these lines?

And maybe I’ll get the courage to post a sound file. Yeah, okay, probably not.

learn to play the ukulele in three easy steps

I had this dream about searching for a ukulele and it had that magic, floaty, fun feeling that only dream-quests can have, and when I woke up I thought, hey, why not?  Sounds like fun to me.  And anyway, it’s like a trend right now, right?  It’s trendy.  I’m trendy!

Step 1.  Acquire a ukulele.

So I bought a ukulele from musicguymic who had an awesome ebay ukulele shop.  I say had because a couple of days after I paid, I hadn’t heard anything, so I went back to ebay and, crimminy, his shop was gone, all the uke listings removed.  I though, oh no, I’ve been scammed—but no.  He finally writes me, all caps, every word misspelled, turns out he’s really sick, having to close down his store because of life-threatening illness, but he still wants to get these last few orders out.  He has my uke, he’ll get it to me, if I can wait.  Well, what to make of this?  I do what anybody does these days—I googled him.  Ran across an assortment of forum threads with hundreds of well-wishes to him, full of stories of uke’s bought from him, repaired by him, about what a great guy he is, I mean, a tremendous outpouring of support and appreciation.  Wow!    Guy’s got cred by the gallon.  So I agree to wait and after a couple of weeks, sure enough, the little uke shows up in my mailbox.  I wrote him to let him know I’d got it, wished him well.  He wrote me back, glad.

musicguymic in his natural habitat

Here is an article on ukulele review about this legendary dude, apparently getting better.  I’m happy to hear it! Hey, musicguymic, we love our uke!  Get well soon….

Step 2.  Hit the internet.

Okay, so, now we had ukulele in hand, what to do next?  Here is a beginner’s guide I ran across that was just what I wanted.  Simple, funny, no nonsense.  The best part is when it advises “sing louder” if you ever aren’t sure of your playing.  Ha!  Ukulele Hunt has a lot of fun videos of great playing and a nice “So you just got your first ukulele” free ebook that gets you in business, plus a ton of other resources.  They’re the ones that sent me over to musicguymic.  Great site.

When you’ve digested all that and you want something more advanced, Ukulele Underground has some terrific how-to vids.  And ukulele-tabs has about every song in the world.  Okay, maybe not, but they have a lot.

And don’t forget youtube!  Your basic youtube search will turn up just about anything.  The first song I learned was the theme music to the kid’s favorite cartoon, “Adventure Time,” which I think is played on ukulele in the show.  It’s about a minute long, has three chords, and the kids CHEERED when I demonstrated what youtube took five minutes to teach me.

Instant music!  This is the beauty of a uke.

Which brings me to….

Step 3.  Rock out.

Maybe it’s the incredible cuteness of a uke—it looks inevitably like a toy—but there is a zero-impedance factor to playing one.  No ego, no, “oh, that’s too hard,” no “I’d have to take lessons first,” no “I’m no good at music.”  You see it, you want to fiddle around with it, you pick it up and start playing.  Bam.

The next song I learned was Margaritaville, and then the riff from the Violent Femmes, “Blister in the Sun” and then Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and by then I was hooked. I’m getting the tabs for a lot of these from Ukulele Boogaloo which has a delightful mix of songs, not so many as to overwhelm, but a fun eclectic assortment, plus pictures of the chord shapes right there on the page.  Yeah!  I can bring up a song on the ipad and play it enough to enjoy myself after only a couple of minutes of fumbling.  No pressure, no worries, just plunking away, singing—me!  singing!  madness!—just being silly.  It’s terrific.

I’m still learning guitar, of course.  I play almost everyday.  I’m working my through Stefan Grossman’s Fingerpicking Blues videos and loving that.  But guitar seems way harder than strumming some chords on the uke.  Somtimes I just want to fool around.  And I mean no disrespect to ukulele players everywhere who play ukulele because it is a real instrument upon which one can make amazing music (see this post, written just after the aforementioned ukulele dream, if you doubt it). Maybe it’s the steel strings on a guitar (ouch) or that there are six of them instead of four.  Or just that cuteness factor again.  Maybe it’s just challenging to take anything this cute seriously.  And some musical impulses are best served by a lack of seriousness.

Anyway, if you want to fool around with some music, I highly recommend a ukulele.  It’s the democratization of live music!  There are a ton of free ways to learn on the net and $50 bucks will get you a decent uke to fool around on.  Sophie has picked up some chords from watching me—she really wants to learn the end theme to “Spongebob.”

Sophie rocks the G chord

Our little uke currently lives on top of the piano, just hanging out, waiting for one of us to pick it up and play for a few minutes here or there, no pressure.

Come on, join us in the revolution!  Get your ukulele freak on.

jaw on the floor

These people are A-MAZING. If I smoked I would have had to have a cig after watching. Stay for the head banging percussion ending. How can they play and dance like that at the same time?

I think I just burst into flames.

stefan grossman’s guitar workshop

Previously I’ve mentioned learning guitar from youtube, then from nextlevelguitar.com, and then from truefire.com (links are to my reviews).  Youtube was all, hey, wow, look at this, bazillions of how-to videos, who’d-a-thunk, this is cool! And so hit-or-miss!  In comparison to youtube, nextlevelguitar was organized, progressive, starting at the very beginning (which hand holds the neck and which hand strums? etc.) (which I needed), and working up to a Most Basic of Guitarish Knowledge.  But I don’t want to be in a band, so I kind of ground to halt over there.  Which is when I found Truefire, a banquet of flavors to choose from…did I want a smattering of slapping and tapping?  Some in-depth theory?  Some rock-n-roll?  Some classical fingerstyle?  Some funky funk?  Here, have some!  See Maya gorge herself on the possibilities!

It was during this time that I discovered that I really, really like acoustic blues.  The pre-war stuff.  Delta blues guitar.  Old-timey fingerpicking.  Mississippi John Hurt, and Elizabeth Cotton, and Mance Lipscombe, etc.  How odd that playing the blues makes me so happy!  I didn’t know when I started guitar that this was the direction I’d want to go after awhile, but here I am.

And, unfortunately, truefire ran dry of this material after a bit.  1) One of their main teachers of this stuff just did not work for me, so that was several courses I just couldn’t use.  And 2) They’ve lots more electric blues than acoustic.  Sooo…back to google and youtube and bang-o, I found…Stefan Grossman.

Stefan Grossman is an acoustic blues guitarist, a student of Rev. Gary Davis, and a guy who has been to the rodeo and back again in the blues world.  Here is his wikipedia entry, quite a story.  But for my purposes the main thing is this:  Mr. Grossman has put together a whole pile of kick-ass teaching vids just for the kind of fingerpicking blues style guitar music I want to learn.  Hooray!

(If you go to his site, he is compiling lots of teaching vids from many people, in various styles, but the ones I’m talking about are the ones where he is teaching the stuff himself.  The others may be awesome, but I haven’t seen them, and so can’t comment.)

Mr. Grossman’s vids are the best I’ve come across yet and here is why.  First, he knows the body of material and has picked out songs in a gradient of difficulty, so that I’m playing actual old songs, full of musicality and deliciousness vs. dry exercises.  MUCH more fun that way. Second, he breaks it all down very clearly, then does a split-screen version where you can see what each hand is doing during the hard bits.  The video quality and production values are high.  No bit of the music has remained mysterious to me thus far, which is so satisfying and non-frustrating. Yay, for not being frustrated!  But then, if that weren’t enough, he’s got all this archival footage of the old guys playing the songs themselves, so you get to hear and see the real deal as you go.  Very cool.  Mr. Grossman is also friendly and funny and relaxed in front of a camera, AND his software for buying/downloading/watching/etc. so far has worked seamlessly, no small thing.

Can you tell I’m loving this?

As a side note, I was also looking around for women blues guitarists and ran across Rory Block, this gal who plays Robert Johnson’s stuff like she’s a reincarnation of the man himself.  Turns out she studied with a bunch of the old guys when she was a teenager and, small world, was Mr. Grossman’s galfriend for a while.  She’s written a memoir, When a Woman Gets the Blues, about the trials of being a blueswoman when everyone says ‘what’s a white girl like you doing playing old black men’s music?’ and I’m looking forward to reading it.

Anyhoo, if you want to learn acoustic blues guitar, Stefan Grossman can take you there.  I’ve been working with his material for a couple of months and I’m playing songs I never would have thought I could, “Nobody’s Dirty Business,” “Make me a Pallet on your Floor,” “Lovin’ Spoonful,” and “Crow Jane,” are some of the songs in the first set of vids I’ve worked through, and I can’t believe I can make these sounds, I’m just pleased as punch.  I’m starting the next set of vids and I’m just enjoying the heck out of these, too.  Very high quality, on target, fun, easy to understand, easy to learn from.

Stefan Grossman, thank you so much for putting these vids together!  Highly recommended.

And let me just add that so far, learning to play guitar from replayable videos has been a wonderful suprise.  I can’t imagine how I could have come this far, this quickly, taking lessons once a week.  Impossible.  For fun and ease, at least at a hobbiest’s level of learning, video is the way to go.

It’s so nice to have an enjoyable hobby that is purely for the the fun of the moment.  No goal, no drive, no ‘success’ or ‘failure.’  Just, whenever I want, whenever I’m free, I sit and play for a bit, as long as I like or until something else intervenes, just because I enjoy it.  The music is in the air for a moment, then disappears, maybe my family enjoy it in the background of what they are doing, or maybe they don’t even notice, being busy with their own things.   I like that.  A nice balance to writing which can be so full of desire and ambition and drive for me, and always has been.

Guitar, on the other hand, is pure pleasure.

got me some christmas guitar blues

Just taking a break from the Christmas Eve thing to report on my mostest coolest Christmas present, a lovely parlor-sized guitar from Paul….

Isn’t it pretty?!!!!  It’s a Seagull Coastline Cedar Grand, modeled after the guitars made a hundred years ago, with the narrow little waist and sweet, sweet sound…  Not a high end guitar by any means, but I love it.  A really pretty sound.  I might sell the other one, I’m not sure.  We could certainly use the bucks.  I’m conflicted.

Because, while I love the sound of my other guitar, purchased when I knew nothing about guitars and little about the kind of music I wanted to play and the subsequent kind of guitar that would serve that sort of music, it has its problems for me.  Mainly, as a dreadnaught, its large size, designed for big booming bases and volume to cut through a talky crowd or other instruments in a band, is too big for my small size.  Playing for more than 20 or 30 minutes tends to make my right arm ache and go numb.  Not good.  And that makes me play less.  Sad panda face.  Plus, since I’m playing in the yurt, mostly for myself, I hardly need the loud sound.

See the difference in size?

Plus.  The music I’ve found myself enjoying playing the most is fingerpicking, old-timey, country blues, stuff like Mississippi John Hurt, or Elizabeth Cotton (who lived very near me, I understand, how cool is that?), and the pre-war stuff, like Son House and of course, Robert Johnson.  A hundred years ago, guitars were smaller, venues were smaller.  Guitar was a more intimate instrument, played in a smaller room, say, a parlor.

Which makes a parlor sized guitar perfect for me, both in music selection, and in small size.  Win on both counts!

Here’s the new guitar in action, a snap Sophie took this morning:

That’s me in my guitar hat.  Luc says it makes me play better.

FUN.  I can’t explain it, but playing the blues makes me happy.  What a terrific present!

truefire.com guitar lessons review

Maya vs. the Guitar, cont. or

Internet Guitar Lessons are the BOMB.

So, I did the beginners course over at nextlevelguitar.com, as I reviewed here, all 150 lessons in about two months, and I really enjoyed it.  But then I left them and moved my Guitar Education over to Truefire.com, where I’ve been for the last month, that’s Month Three of my guitar journey (about which I feel, simultaneously , “it’s been that long?” and “it’s only been that long?”).   Two reasons for the move: nextlevelguitar was awesome at covering the basics that would probably be about the same for everyone, but (1) after the beginner section it starts leaning heavily in the ‘be in a band, play rock and roll’ direction, which isn’t really what I’m into, which is (2) fingerstyle, which they have a ton of over at truefire and very little of at nextlevelguitar.  So, there you go.

Truefire.com is another learn-to-play-guitar-online site, a couple steps up in the production values and with a wide variety of instructors and styles.  It’s…well, it’s totally awesome for a learning-glutton such as myself to pay twenty bucks a month and get all the guitar instruction that I can stomach, in tons of styles, and from lots of accomplished guitarists.

Because I can stomach a lot.  This way of learning a musical instrument, this video instruction over the internet thing, has, so far, well, it’s just ROCKED.  It’s light-years beyond the traditional, once a week, 30 minute lesson, that I did for piano oh, so many years ago.  Bored?  Do a different lesson.  Stuck?  Find an alternate teacher who explains it differently and the cross-current of the two or three or ten instructors will make it clear.  Do lessons every day if you want, then not at all for a week as you digest.  Watch the same lesson several times trying to figure out the tricky bit.  Switch to a different genre for a day, just because.  Did I mention that I’ve learned how to read tablature?  They have the sheet music with tabs for all their lessons over there and I find I’ve picked it up from sheer exposure.  It’s just so awesome to be able to affordably learn at my own speed which, when I’m into something, is LOTS FAST NOW.

I’ve been working through David Hamburger’s Fingerstyle Blues Handbook courses, and they’ve been terrific.  He has a knack for making incremental increases that seem, and are, totally doable, but then I look back and suddenly realize how far I’ve come in a short amount of time.  That’s cool and very satisfying.  I’ve also dipped into the Efficient Guitarist and Fingerboard Breakthrough , two really interesting and in-depth theory courses, for when I’m in the mood for that.   And I’ve been slowly moving through Vicki Genfen’s very fun 3-D Guitar, all about tapping and slapping and crazy stuff that I can’t do yet, but I will, I WILL. And I can’t wait to do some of the more advanced fingerstyle courses.  Not every course I’ve watched the intro of has attracted me, but there are gobs and gobs of them.  It’s like going to one of those Chinese restaurants with a buffet of 100 items!  Belly up with your shovel and dig in!

All in all, best bang for a $20 bill I got this month.

I believe I wouldn’t be able to do all of this if I didn’t have the methodical  foundation I had gotten over at nextlevelguitar, so thanks David Taub!

But, basically, I’m not feeling very Maya VERSUS the guitar right now.  My guitar and I are getting along pretty well.

In large part due to Truefire.com.  Highly recommended.

ETA: see the next part of my guitar exploration here, with reviews of where I went after truefire.

maya vs. the guitar, the saga continues

Welp, my second month of guitar playing has passed.  I finished all the ‘beginner’ lessons, all 150 of them over at nextlevelguitar, and can do major barre chords off the sixth string and minors off the fifth string, but forget the reverse of that, or 7th, or anything fancy.  But as I build up my barre strength (and it really does just seem to be a strength issue—some finesse, yes, but mostly, brute muscle), I couldn’t stand still, just sitting around waiting. So I skipped over to fingerpicking, a less strength-based technique and have been having a ball learning some fingerstyle blues.

You know what I’m talking about, that thumping bass line with the chords and/or melody on top?  Sounds like the guitar is more than one instrument?  I love that stuff.  But what in the world is a little white girl like me doing playing the blues?  What in the world could I possibly have the blues about?  I’ll tell ya.  I don’t.  You know, except for the general existential angst, artistic ambitions thwarted by the man, ecological disaster on the horizon, money toubles blues.  There’s those.  But in a personal, daily-life-satisfaction kind of way, naw.  I’m doing just fine.

Still. Although I feel like an impostor playing this music, I find I love it.  There is a lot of fingerstyle that I love, and there is a lot that is just too damn sweet.  And this music is not that, not sweet, not at all.

Learning to get my thumb to do something totally different from my fingers is cool, too—I can feel the neural connections being hooked up for this new activity.  As if these little dudes in construction hats are in there rewiring the circuitry, “Oh, now what does she want, a walking bass line, a boogie vamp, and a melody lick?  At the same time?  For heaven’s sake, we aren’t miracle workers here!”

Look at this guy, Lightning Hopkins, he just blows me away.  I mean look at his face, the gorgeous ruin of it, that’s the blues right there. Damn.

I’m just a poor, little white girl…trying to play the blues….just a poor, stubborn-headed, white girl…may I never get the really, real blues, please gawd, never, not really, no thank you….


I was driving to the mailbox today—what, you don’t drive to mailbox?  We’re rural, okay?  It’s like, a quarter mile at least to ours.  And you try getting your four year old to walk that far when he would SOOOO rather sit on your lap and ‘drive’—anyhow, I was driving to the mailbox today, when what do I spy, but some sort of…swelling on my arm.  Hmmm.  My inner, left, forearm to be exact. Sort of, bulging out.

Curious, I flexed and bent my wrist, wondering what new and strange condition I could be coming down with.  Ouch, it was kind of sore, now that I was paying attention to it.  Huh.  A bug bite?  Fluid retention?  Yoga injury?  But that’s when it hit me.

It’s a muscle!  A BARRE CHORD muscle!  I’m getting guitarist forearms!

I couldn’t be more pleased.  It’s even better than when the little cardboard-like callouses came in on my fingertips, little merit badges for practicing.  Because, yes, after much struggling I can kind of play some barre chords, just the majors on the sixth string and minors off the fifth string, but still, that’s a heck of a lot more than a week or two ago when all I got was plunk plunk plunk, no matter what.

I wonder if I’ll get those long spidery fingers?  Or that super-cool jazz look, that far away, doesn’t look at his hands as he plays, seen it all before Look.  I want that look.  Maybe occasional, syncopated head shake, but that’s it.  Yeah.  Any minute now.