Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Every Bunny Gets Drunk After Easter #11: We're All Asleep Under That Bench In The Park

We're all burned out this week, but Chris Kessel e-mailed an excellent guest column, and so we continue.

I thought I’d give a mini trip report from someone that’s fiddled with guitar and wanted to play, but lacked sufficient will power to pull it off in the past.

Many years ago, when my father died, I got his 1965ish Rickenbacker. It’s a nice guitar even if fairly well worn. Apparently, he played quite a bit when he was in his teens and 20s, though I’d never seen him do more than pick it up and do a few song snippets. I’d picked up the guitar and started to learn over the years, but never in any methodical way. I’d find guitar tab for a couple songs I liked and learn bits and pieces. I enjoyed doing the solos, but didn’t really enjoy rhythm. I also tend to like music from guitarists of no small amount of skill: Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, etc. Lacking any musical training at all, I also have a terrible ear. I can’t tell you if something is sharp or flat. I can’t look at music and get any feel for how it should sound, even rhythmically. Is that 12..3 or 1.2…3? I’d see tab, I’d play the notes, but it’d take a bunch of timing variations before it sounded like something I’d recognize.

Consequently, my “learning” was usually limited to tiny snippets of songs way beyond my skill, which in turn meant that I’d eventually lose motivation as I never seemed to get to a point where I could play anything I liked. Having played Guitar Hero, I wished for some way to learn a real guitar with the same gradual progression GH gave you with plastic guitars. Little did I know at the time that Harmonix was going to fulfill that wish.

Bring in Rock Band 3 and the Squier. My advantage coming in is I had twiddled with guitar for a couple months every few years, so I actually had decent ability to finger notes and run scales. I blew through the anything in RB3’s early training exercises related to single notes. Easy songs were passed immediately with 3 stars, some with 4 stars and a few with 5. Then came chord exercises, particularly barre chords. Holy crap those are hard! I didn’t have anything remotely close to enough wrist strength and it took a couple weeks of very stead playing (probably 10 hours a week) to pass those tests. However, already RB3 is showing its promise as a trainer. I’d already played more, and with more focus, in 2 weeks with RB3 than in most of my prior attempts and I was learning things I didn’t have motivation to learn earlier (barre chords). Getting that little lesson to turn green showing I’d passed it was very motivating. There was definitely a “one more” mentality, particularly with training on songs where you can learn the song in pieces AND you can pass each piece at 60% speed, then 70%, then 80%, etc. There was never a point where there wasn’t some test just within my ability to pass with just a little more effort.

After a few weeks I reached a point where I’d passed every song on Medium. At Hard, things really slowed down. I passed about ½ of the Hard songs. I’d completed every training exercise except the arpeggios one. Passing the training items were difficult just because there were so many notes and you can’t miss a single one if you want to pass. One interesting bit of perspective I gained was a real appreciation for how hard good rhythm guitar is. Complicated strumming patterns and chord changes are brutal difficult.

Which brings me to today. RB3’s has essentially trained me to the point where RB3 is of limited value, but that’s probably a good thing. Playing with the mute on was great initially, but now I really want to hear what I’m playing so typically I turn off failure detection and un-mute. I’ve passed most all the exercises, so the motivation to pass them again isn’t there, even if it might be useful from a skill advancement viewpoint. While with plastic guitars it was satisfying to get to 3, 4, then 5 stars, much of that involved gaming star power. It’s not really satisfying now to me to “pass” a real song by hitting the rhythm and boffing the solos. That just feels wrong and counter to my eventual goal of learning to actually play a song. I’ve also found that the Squier’s detection isn’t always matching what I’m doing, particularly on cramped chords (e.g. F shape on higher frets), which is a bit frustrating if I’m actually trying to get it to pass a song. I also tend to prefer thumb/finger playing rather than a pick, partly because it’s quieter and won’t annoy my wife, and partly because some of the songs I like use that technique at least in portions (Knopfler of Dire Straights uses thumb/finger). The Squier doesn’t detect finger plucking well at all.

RB3 is still a great song learning tool though even if I used it for nothing else. Guitar tab in a nicely done form that’s easy to practice. For exercises, I’m now turning away from RB3. I’m starting to go through Guitar Justin’s method, one lesson at a time. In the past, I think I wouldn’t have enjoyed it, but RB3 has trained me sufficiently in the basics that I can play the chords and walk the fretboard decently, and thus I don’t feel demotivatingly clumsy and slow as I work through the lessons. I’m debating putting the Squire away and bringing out my dad’s Rickenbacker again because I’m not really using what the Squier adds anymore. Plus, I love my dad’s old guitar if for no reason other than it was his, but I think it’s a better guitar too.

In a nutshell, what RB3 did for me was get me past the “I suck! This is not fun!” stage of learning. It gave me reasons to progress and ways to play simple versions of songs (the Easy/Medium versions) as I went through that process of getting the fundamentals in place. Now that I have those fundamentals, I find myself more motivated than in any of my prior dabblings to actually improve my skills more formally.

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