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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Learning music is among life's greatest rewards

By Ted Slowik

New birthday gear
I reached an important milestone last week in my quest to learn blues guitar. I bought myself a Fender Blues Junior amplifier for my birthday. I also bought an electric guitar to keep in an open tuning to play slide guitar more conveniently.

Regular readers of Blues Musings will recall I played bass in a blues band from 2000-2011, and since then have been learning guitar. For the past two or three years most of my development has been with the acoustic instrument: learning scales and chords, understanding the importance of tone, being able to play solos, becoming comfortable performing original material in front of audiences, etc.

Those are all skills better learned acoustically, in my opinion. I'm very happy with the progress and improvement but I look back at tapes of myself just a few years ago and cringe at how poorly I sounded. I hope in a couple years I feel the same way about my performances today. The point is, no need to amplify your mistakes when you're just learning.

Performing at the Uptown with Billy Flynn
I've been lucky enough to "fake" my way through performances where I sounded like I knew what I was doing but was really just parroting other sounds I had heard and repeating them without fully understanding the theory behind the music. Soon after I left the blues band, I went to a Mark Cihlar-hosted jam at The Uptown tap in Westmont. The great Billy Flynn was playing. Among his many blues credits, he plays guitar on the soundtrack for the film "Cadillac Records." After we played a couple songs together, I was leaving and he came outside the club to say how much he enjoyed playing Tracy Chapman's "Give Me One Reason" because he hadn't played in F sharp for years! That made me feel really good that a great player like Billy would take the time to say something so kind.

Professional blues players talk about "woodshedding," the concept of going off somewhere quietly out of the public eye and mastering your instrument. The most famous blues player of all, Robert Johnson, is said to have sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads to learn guitar. That's how amazed his contemporaries were at his transformation. In reality, he went off on his own and taught himself to play guitar.

Nowadays, the number of guitar prodigies seems countless. Back in the 1990s, artists like Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd signed record deals in their teens. Today, Buddy Guy pal Quinn Sullivan seems like a grizzled veteran at 14 when there are kids shredding at ages 7 or 8. How do they become so accomplished at such a young age? Especially in the blues genre, where emotion trumps technical proficiency.

There are many variations of this sentiment (Jimi Hendrix said, "The blues is easy to play but hard to feel,") but basically the gist is this: Someone can show you everything you need to know about the blues in one day, but it'll take you a lifetime to learn it.

My ideal Blues Jr. settings
Back when I was 15, I borrowed a book from the library on how to play guitar. Through the years I mostly learned to play other people's songs by ear. You'd pick up the needle on a the turntable and play a bit of a song over and over again until you figured out the words or musical phrasing as well you could.

Nowadays, the Internet makes everything much more accessible. Need the lyrics or chords to some forgotten favorite tune from the 1960s? Google it, and it's at your fingertips. There are millions of instructional videos, where someone will show you how to play just about any song, from the tuning to the phrasing and tempo and everything in between.

But there's no substitute for personal instruction. Since Christmas I've been studying guitar from Kev Wright of The Righteous Hillbillies. He's an excellent teacher who prepares lessons based on his many students' individual interests. I feel like his tutelage has really accelerated my progress, to the point where I'm now ready to apply what I've learned to the electric guitar.

There are many nuances and subtleties that contribute to attaining excellent sound. Knowledge is key, but repetition is also important. The best way to get good at something is to do it over and over many times. There's no substitute for experience.

My philosophy about music is this: learning creates a sense of accomplishment, which leads to happiness. So long as I continue to practice diligently and expand my repertoire of techniques and sounds, I'm better today than I was yesterday. And that's a great, positive outlook.

Artists should never compare themselves to other artists, because that's a surefire recipe for disappointment. You should only compare yourself to yourself. And the part I've found that's most important is to discover your reason why you create art. Selfish motivations like "I want to be rich and famous" will ultimately reveal themselves in the artist's work, and the artist's legacy will be impermanent regardless of commercial success. But if the artist's heart is pure, and the motivation is something like, "I feel the need to express because I have something important to say," then that artist might just have a chance to someday create something immortal.

Learning electric guitar properly opens up a whole new world, not the least of which involves playing above the 12th fret for the first time (for me). I'm looking forward to learning about distortion, reverb, delay, overdrive and other types of pedals that help make playing electric guitar so much fun.
Kev's pedals