Sunday, August 3, 2014

Acoustic Guitar Journal #2: The First Songs

Stevie Nicks' "Landslide" was the
song I wanted to learn first
For almost two months now, I've been taking acoustic guitar lessons. As mentioned before, we moved right into chords and finger picking so I could start learning songs as a way to acclimate myself to the instrument (and build callouses). This has worked out very well. I was able to get familiar with a bunch of chords, changing chords, and finger picking basics.

Kicking off the lessons, my teacher asked me about the music I like and my goals in learning guitar. Then out of the blue he asked what song I wanted to learn first as a way to get familiar with finger picking. I didn't know what to say, as I hadn't given this much thought. I know plenty of songs I wanted to learn but which one to focus on first? What song would grab me enough to play over and over? The first song that jumped to my lips was Stevie Nicks' "Landslide". As soon as I said it, I felt good about it. Stevie Nicks is my favorite songwriter, and she's the inspiration behind me becoming interested in writing poetry when I was a pre-teen and in playing music of any kind. Also, at ten years old, the first record I ever bought was Rumours and I pretty much grew up on "Landslide" (and all her other songs). It felt like my home turf.

After a few weeks, I got the hang of finger picking, finger picking while changing chords, finger picking while changing chords and messing with the rhythm, and the capo. Putting things together is the toughest part of all this, but finger picking feels natural to me now. In any case, "Landslide" sounds like "Landslide", so that my teacher has moved me on to working at the solo and also barre chords so I can start making chords up the neck of the guitar.

Barre chords are a challenge; I'm not gonna lie. Much tougher than finger picking. But the great thing about learning a musical instrument after you've mastered one is that you know from experience if you keep practicing, just about anything becomes doable. Fortunately, I've been very disciplined in practicing, sometimes spending an hour a day or more at it. Part of what helped me keep at it was adding extra material to practice. Really, no one wants to play one song over and over for thirty minutes or an hour, regardless of how beneficial it is likely to be or how much you love the song.

So here are the songs I've been working on, and what they are bringing to the table for me. I'm learning something different from each one:

"Landslide" by Stevie Nicks
I'm learning the Dixie Chicks version, however I'm inserting the Lindsey Buckingham solo from the Fleetwood Mac album. (How can I not do the Lindsey version in some way? The guy is a finger picking virtuoso. He also plucks two strings at once, which was a good thing for me to see. And there is also a steady rhythm to his solo that is helpful for learning because you can't really lose your place, even when the tab has no time notations.

"I Walk the Line" by Johnny Cash
I've always liked this song and Cash for some reason I can't quite pinpoint. Even when I was listening to techno or acid jazz or classical, there was always a part of me that could connect with a Johnny Cash song. I think it's that he sounds so earthy and straightforward. His sounds sound like he woke up and recorded a song in the ten minutes he had before heading out the door. Very effortless and unfussy. However, if you listen to his voice, under that deep guy's-guy baritone, there is always something dark and in pain. It grabs you and makes you listen and believe him. That kind of raw talent is something someone just brings to the music; you can't learn it. Plus, this song is fun to play because of the country-twang rhythm and all those low notes. It's almost like a bass line?

"Wildflowers" by Dolly Parton
I have always admired her songwriting ability, especially her power as a lyricist. There isn't a more poetic lyricist in country music (based on my limited knowledge of the genre anyway!). "Wildflowers" resonated with me so much that I can't recall anything else she, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt did on the Trio album. I play this song, strumming the whole thing throughout. This has helped me learn to play in this manner. The other nice thing is that it's G, C, and D7. This is important because I find that C and G are the harder chords to switch to and from while playing a song. So working on a song that makes me practice this change over and over and over is very helpful exercise. I also learned that I can find the song in the tab by playing to the rhythm to the lyrics as they are sung.

"Stolen Car" by Bruce Springsteen
Another great song that overshadowed a whole album for me (well is from The River after all). The lyrics to this song are deep, maybe even deeper than Springsteen realized as he was writing it (or maybe I suggest this because, again, the song comes off as effortless and tossed-off). The surprise here is that it works off two chords (G and C) which are also two of the three chords in "Wildflowers". So the immediate challenge for me was how to perform two song using essentially the same chords and yet have one come off peppy and country and the other dark and existential. This has taught me a lot about how to play, not just what to play. It also upset my 'playing to the lyrics approach' because Springsteen sings his lyrics with a conversational rhythm, with 'little girl's and "I guess's and extra syllables crowding in. Tougher for me to find the song, even though it's ostensibly as simple as dirt.

"Hotel California" by the Eagles
My teacher assigned this one to me last week as an intro to barre chords (it uses two of them). He gave me the sequence of chords to learn. When I came back the next week, I was happy to be able to play the song reasonably well because I'd worked out a finger picking pattern for the verses and a strumming approach for the chorus.

Of course, I cheated on the barre chords in my haste to learn the song. To play Bm and F#, I realized I really didn't need to barre anything but the first two strings so how could I resist that temptation! My teacher insists I do it the right way though, so I'm pushing at it for next week.

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