An Article That Wasn’t Published

1 Dec

I’d like to share an instructional article that I came up with for Acoustic Guitar Magazine – I’ve had a few pieces published in the magazine, courtesy of the amazing Dan Apczynski, and this one, concerning techniques for breaking down, rephrasing, and re-assembling tricky sections in a song, was a bit too complicated.  A paired-down version of the article will be in a forthcoming issue, but I wanted to use this space to share the unedited, slightly more complicated version.  After the break:

Write it Out, Break it Down, and Put it Back Together

Learn to play even the most difficult piece of guitar music by methodically breaking it into small segments.

When learning new material, sooner or later you will come upon a difficult section that stops you dead in your tracks. When tackling tough these tough bits, take it slow and try this three-step approach: write it out, break it down, and then put it back together.

Make a mental outline If you’re transcribing or playing by ear, start by determining the nature of the section in question. How many measures or beats long is it? What are the first and last notes, and where do they fall in the bar? Examine section’s contour – are there peaks and valleys?  If so, try to determine the notes at their apexes and nadirs.

Fill in the Blanks Fill in any notes missing from your outline by quickly pausing, singing, playing back on your guitar, and then notating them one at a time, taking full advantage of your pause and rewind buttons.

Reassemble It, Two Notes at a Time Once you’ve got the whole line figured out, you’re ready to learn to play it in time. Although simply slowing down the material and working it up to tempo is a perfectly serviceable approach, it is, in some cases, easier to work out fast licks two notes at a time, making every other note twice as long is it is on the recording. If, for example, you are learning a line made up of eight sixteenth notes, play it instead as four eighth notes and four sixteenth notes, alternating eighth-sixteenth (see examples 1 and 2).


It may sound a bit strange, but this process will condition your muscle memory to make the quick motions that will be necessary when playing the line at full speed, while still giving your brain time between fast movements to regroup.  After you’ve got that down, flip it around and alternate sixteenth-eighth (example 3). Finally, play the line entirely as sixteenth notes, but insert a beat of rest in between each set of four notes (example 4).

It is very important to proceed slowly and patiently; this is about muscle memory, and if you go too fast, your fingers won’t have time to internalize the necessary motions.
This technique can be applied to just about any musical material, written or transcribed, from bluegrass finger-picking to bebop licks. Get creative with how you slow down and reconfigure things; in no time, you’ll be mastering material that only days earlier seemed out of reach.

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