Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Are You Boxed In?

by Dave Isaacs
One of the biggest obstacles to real improvement on the guitar is actually tied to the way most of us first learned to play. Since the guitar is, after all, a rhythm instrument, we learn chords and strum patterns as soon as our hands are able to coordinate the movements. We memorize the chords by looking at pictures: a box or grid formed by the intersection of the strings and the frets. This is likely to be familiar to any of you that play guitar; odds are it’s how you learned your first chords. We learn strums by memorizing sequences of movements: strum down, strum up, etc. These combinations of moves create a different sort of “box” but it’s still a fixed pattern we memorize and learn to use.
This method works perfectly well and is still probably the quickest way to get started making music. The built-in pitfall is that it teaches us from the beginning to think in boxes. D chord has this shape: box. This strum uses this sequence of moves: another box. Fast-forward a few years down the line, and you may find yourself saying, “I’m stuck in a box!”
To become an accomplished player – or just more accomplished than you are today, which is what your goal should always be – you need to learn to leave the boxes behind. The diagrams will always be useful tools for memorization, but the problem is that we learn to see them as fixed and static. In other words, we see each chord as a block rather than a collection of notes that can be manipulated to create other sounds.
For many people, learning new chords just means more boxes: for a new way to play the G chord, use this box. But to really expand your vocabulary, look past the finger patterns. There are many chords we can play by just changing one or two notes of a chord we already know, but “box thinking” stops us from seeing the possibility. We can also get so locked into a fingering that we might not see how close one chord is to another. There might be a difference of only one note, but if you need to change the position of multiple fingers it can seem like the change is bigger than it actually is. For example, take the familiar open position D and D7 forms.
All three fingers need to move in order to switch from D to D7, but if you pay attention to which notes are actually being held down you’ll notice that the difference between the two chords is only one note. The second string D note (3rd fret) is replaced by a C note (1st fret). Noticing this can help you learn every other 7th chord: just identify the note that needs to move (the octave, or higher-pitched double of the note that names the chord) and lower it by a step (two frets). If this requires re-fingering, find which combination of fingers feels most natural. This way we arrive at a new box, but we get there by thinking about notes and relationships instead of just about finger positions.
“Box thinking” can be a trap for your rhythm skills as well. Most of us learn rhythms as strum patterns: down, down-up, up-down. I’ve had many people come to me for lessons and ask to learn “new strums”. Just like with learning chords, this kind of simple approach is great in the beginning because it’s easy to understand. But it’s inherently limited, because it reduces our concept of rhythm and groove to a sequence of hand and arm movements.
Real command of rhythm guitar comes from a deeper understanding of rhythm, but it isn’t complicated…as with chords, it’s just a different way of thinking. Rhythm starts with the pulse – the heartbeat, the thing you tap your foot to. Every rhythm you could think of is simply a combination of groupings and subdivisions of that pulse. When we swing the arm back and forth to strum, we’re already subdividing the pulse into groups of two: one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and. Learning a new rhythm is as simple as deciding when to strike the strings and when to miss them.
The big picture in all of this is that improvement on any instrument requires a shift from mechanics to – you guessed it – music! In other words, we start to think of sounds and the relationship between them. Chords are groups of notes, rhythms are groups of stressed and unstressed beats. The patterns we memorized in the beginning got us started, but patterns alone are just tools. They give us one small part of a much bigger picture. We don’t have to leave patterns behind – after all, music is build on patterns – but our creative possibilities explode when see the larger view.
Most of all, and most encouraging: understand that this new approach is not hard! It’s simply a different way of looking at what you already do. I don’t mean to minimize the time and effort it takes to become accomplished; there’s no way around that part. But the process begins – and continues – with the recognition that there’s more to what you already do than you might realize. When you start to see these possibilities, the exploration of new pathways moves us forward….and out of the box for good.
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