Category Archives for "Guitar"

Getting An Acoustic Guitar

Buying an Acoustic Guitar

We meet once again,

Buying an acoustic guitar is not that different from buying an electric guitar. It involves the basic steps of defining your budget and finding an instrument that speaks to you. I know, I know, some of you might cringe when the word “budget” is mentioned. And perhaps, someone somewhere has absolutely no budget limitations. However, for most of us, the money we have to spend on an instrument is a reality that is hard to bypass. But I have great news for you, at least when it comes to guitars, there’s something for every budget.

But before you start…  let’s have some serious fun!

 Sometimes we take for granted the moment in history in which we live. We have a plethora of information right at our fingertips, and we are going to use it here. Perhaps the best advice before buying an acoustic guitar is to research and experiment before making the purchase.

Read up on reviews, go on forums, go on online music stores, and explore the web on all things related to acoustic guitars. Go on the website of the usual suspects for acoustic guitars: Taylor, Martin, Larrivee, Alvarez, Cordoba, Gibson, Fender, etc. If you already have defined what your budget is, then you can even start a short list of models that look appealing. If you have not defined your budget yet, there’s no need to worry.

Regardless of your budget, get acquainted with as many acoustic guitar models as you can. Read about what makes them good, or not so good, why some features are more desirable, etc. Once you have started that, we can then move on to part two of our plans.

Try out many acoustic guitars

 Go to your favorite music stores to try out as many acoustics as you like. Spend time with them and get a feel for what you like. See if you connect with any and if so, start noticing what do you like about them. Is it their sound? Perhaps how they feel? Maybe even how the body resonates against your chest?

Feel free to try guitars that are not in your budget. The idea here is to develop some criteria. This way you will know exactly what a $ 1500-dollar guitar feels and sounds like, as opposed to, say, a $ 400 dollar one. And the best of all is that you will experience this first hand. This will be a nice complement to all the info you read online.

Talk to the sales people at the store and ask for their opinion. A word of caution: opinions will differ greatly from person to person. There is no wrong or right here, as tastes vary widely from player to player. The only one that knows exactly how an acoustic guitar makes you feel is you. Even if you have never strummed one before. When buying an acoustic guitar, nothing is as powerful as connecting with the instrument.

A word on budget

 Common wisdom dictates that with a larger budget you can buy a better guitar (as with most things). The good news is that guitar manufacturing has come a long way. This is especially true when trying to get a good instrument with a limited budget. Companies understand that most potential acoustic guitar buyers don’t have thousands to spare. And believe me, those companies want your business. Therefore, they try and offer the very best money can buy for all budgets. This is true not only for new companies but also for the very established ones. Manufacturers like Gibson, Fender, Cordoba, Ibanez, Martin, Taylor and more, offer good options for virtually every budget.

Steel string or nylon string?

 This is an important question!

For the most part, steel string guitars project more and tend to be a bit louder than their nylon counterparts. However, nylon is usually a bit easier on the fingers and lends itself particularly well for fingerstyle playing. Style is also an important consideration. If your goal is to engage in classical style studying, then nylon is definitely the way to go. For about everything else, including songwriting, it all depends on your taste. Try several models of steel string and nylon string guitars, and see what you prefer.

Plugged or unplugged?

 Another important consideration is whether the guitar will have a built-in pickup system. If your plan is to plug in an amp or speaker, then this is a must. Keep in mind that having a pickup automatically raises the price of the instrument. There are also add-on acoustic pickups that you can buy separately, but they typically sound inferior. If you want to connect your guitar to amplify the sound, a built-in system is a way to go.

On the other hand, if you want an acoustic guitar to just learn how to play and have fun, then you can skip that. The same applies if you just want to write some songs or use them in situations that do not require amplification. 

Wrapping it all up

 If you follow the advice given here, buying an acoustic guitar should be a very satisfying experience. There’s nothing like finding out what you truly like and connect with. Informing yourself and playing several acoustic guitars will not only be rewarding and productive but fun as well.

A word of caution: If you can, steer away from buying a guitar that you have not tried. It might be alluring to just order something off the Internet (which will usually be cheaper than buying at a physical store). I would advise against that, even if you have tried the model of the guitar in question. The best scenario is to try out a guitar, feel that it speaks to you, buy it… and live happily ever after.

That’s it for this week! 

Stay tuned and…

Peace Out!

The Guitar Head

Strumming Basics

Strumming Basics

 Hi, going to get a little technical on you this week…

I’m guessing that reactions to the title of this piece will include things like “really?!?” and “what next – how to use a spoon?!?”

Yes, it’s a very basic idea. Some of the greatest ideas ever were basic. Take the wheel for example – a simple concept that creates simple movement, makes things roll along and enables great journeys to happen. That could easily be an analogy for what good strumming does for guitar playing.

Seriously?

Sure – I’m serious. Because if you ask ANY guitar teacher about the hardest basic principle to teach a complete beginner, strumming is likely to be top of the list. It’s also probably the most common concern that older students, returning to guitar playing after years of neglect, ask for help and guidance with.

SERIOUSLY??

OK, try this; when you started playing guitar, you probably first learned how to make chords. Then you learned to strum them. And we’re willing to bet that the chords were the easiest bit.

Get over the initial pain and weirdness of forcing your fingers to accurately jam metal wires against other metal wires (if you think about it, playing guitar is a massively un-natural thing for the human body to do) and chord shapes don’t really present a problem. With a bit of practice, the digits on your fretting hand kind of end up doing the thinking for you, arranging themselves into the optimum position to play the next chord pretty quickly.

This is muscle memory in action. Your body has remembered how to shape those chords cleanly, and without buzzing or deadened strings, kinda so that your brain doesn’t have to. In the same way, it remembers how to use a pencil without tearing through the paper. Or (see the first sentence of this article) use a spoon without putting soup up your nose. Or on the ceiling. Any parents reading this will understand.

Play a chord and you’ve painted a harmonic picture – you’ve made a still image out of the noise. Think of E major as a comfortable, no-nonsense photograph of your home, imagine A minor as a sad emoji picture on Facebook, and consider Cdim7 as some kind of surreal Salvador Dali painting showing a clock melting over a pink elephant standing in a desert. Or something.

Can we get to the point?

The point is that individual chords are only still images. Strumming provides rhythm, and immediately you animate these pictures – the freeze frame becomes part of a video – and the music comes to life.

And yet strumming remains the biggest part of simple guitar playing that many players struggle with. But don’t worry, it’s just a case of stripping things back to the basics.

The physical basis

The first principle of learning to do anything well is to be comfortable whilst you learn. So,

  • Make sure you sit right. Yeah, obviously you might think. But you’re not going to relax enough to strum that guitar properly if you’re not in a position to hold it correctly. Deep sofas, tall bar stools, any chair with arms, sitting cross-legged perched on a table, these are all bad starting points. Try a normal comfortable chair, where your feet can sit flat on the floor. This means your thigh should be horizontal, so hopefully, your guitar won’t try to slide off it.
  • Make sure you’re holding the guitar right. Also, pretty self-evident? In which case you’ve already made sure both arms are completely free to move, right? You’re surely not being lazy and resting your fretting hand arm on your leg, right…?

While the upper part of your strumming arm may well be resting on the body of the guitar, the elbow and lower part of the arm needs to be able to move freely in front of the guitar. That whole lower arm section gets involved with the strumming, starting at your elbow hinge, and it all needs to move freely.

Does your strumming hand feel comfortable? If not then you’ve probably got it bent inwards like some misshapen claw. Straighten it out – you want to play your guitar, not try to attack it.

What else can you do to make the strumming experience comfortable? Well, while you’re learning…

  • Use a pick. Seriously. However, tempted you might be to try strumming steel strings with your fingers or thumb, we really wouldn’t recommend it in terms of comfort! Good habits are worth forging early on, and you’ll genuinely play more rhythmically from the beginning using a pick. Start with something nice and light – you can work up to crazy metal or bone picks once Clapton books you for a studio session…
  • Hold the pick properly. Secure it between your first finger and thumb, with all other fingers tucked in beneath so that it points out at 90º from your thumb. Keep your hand straight and in line with your strumming arm – if it’s running parallel with the front of your guitar then the pick should be pointing directly at the strings. Exactly where you want it.
  • Use light strings. Again, not something you always need to stick with. But why not make things easier as you learn?

The rhythmic basics

Strumming a guitar is almost like conducting a band. The conductor moves their arm to the beat. The guitarist does the same. Kind of…

Although there are many different styles of strumming, the simplest method is to play a down-strum (or down-stroke) on each beat (or pulse) of the music. Like this.

Now stop. Pause. Hold the phone. Because this single bar of music, this simple little exercise, this tiny nugget of information is probably the greatest thing any guitarist will ever learn. Unlike the conductor leading the band, the guitarist has just started conducting his or her self. Just that basic downward movement on each beat builds the foundation on which we move seamlessly from playing a beat to playing rhythm.

The next logical step is to introduce an up-strum (or up-stroke). Where do we do this? Between the down-strums of course!

You can clearly see that up-strums ONLY happen on the off-beats. This is the unavoidable result of strumming down ON the beat. But it’s a happy and very convenient result – we need to return our strumming arm to a position ready to play the next beat, so why not strum an off-beat in the process.

From beat to rhythm

By now the basic point should be obvious; strumming down on each beat ensures that your arm keeps moving in time to the music. The pulse is now flowing nicely, and turning that beat into a rhythm is the next step.

It looks as though there are bits missing from the strumming, right? Well, yes and no. Try playing this example, even if you haven’t got a guitar with you (just move your arm up and down – tell anyone watching that you’re ‘air strumming’ if they look worried).

You’re still strumming down on each beat, you’re still keeping that basic pulse, you’re still conducting yourself. But you’re not strumming a chord on every beat and off-beat of the bar – because you don’t have to. The plectrum hits the strings whenever you want it to, creating interesting new gaps in the sound, layering a new feel over the beat.

As if by magic the pulse has now become rhythm. Voila!

Wrapping It Up

And that’s the basics of strumming. For those readers who still find it difficult, I hope this helps. For those who have already nailed it, spread the word!

Now for a rest before I write that spoon article…so until next time…

Peace Out!

The Guitar Head

Guitar Strings – What’s The Big Deal?!?

Guitar Strings – What’s The Big Deal?!?

You’re back again?  Good deal – got some great info for you this week on an area that is often overlooked…

Guitar strings are the most direct connection between a guitarist and the music. They represent the point of contact, literally, between human and machine. Yet they don’t get half the attention that guitars, amps, and pedals get. Here are the seven things you need to know about guitar strings.

Size matters: string gauge

Sting gauges vary from very light to ultra heavy. A player typically chooses a set of strings that includes only light, medium, or heavy strings. There are cases of extremely meticulous guitar players that like to combine gauges in one set. For instance, a particular player might use light gauges for the top three strings and heavy gauges for the bottom three. Although any combination is possible, string sets are sold keeping the gauges of all strings consistent.

Because terms like “light” or “medium” can vary from company to company, the best is to go by the actual measurement of the string gauge. The industry standard is to measure them in 1/1000th’s of an inch. The lightest high E string available measures 0.008” and one of the heaviest low E strings available measures .056. A typical medium set will have the following measurements from top to bottom: 0.011”, 0.015”, 0.018”, 0.026”, 0.036”, 0.050”.

If you decide to go with a medium set (a common choice for many styles), you can go to your store and ask for a set of 11’s. Yup, guitarists typically refer to an entire set of strings by the size of the high E string!

String gauge affects playability, durability, and tone

So… why would you choose one gauge set over the other? Typically, lighter gauge guitar strings are easier to play, and this might be appealing to beginners. But there’s a tradeoff. Lighter gauges are more prone to breaking and thinner sounding than heavy gauge strings. As with most things guitar related, you will have to try and see what works best for you and what kind of compromises you are willing to make.

Prince was known to use very light strings, like 8’s (0.008” on the high E string). On the other hand jazz guitar, great Pat Martino is known for using extremely heavy strings, like 16’s (0.016” on the high E string). Both are recognized as guitar heroes in their particular styles. Prince played smaller guitars (which tend to go better with light strings). And Martino plays Jazz on a full hollow-body guitar (even though 16’s is a bit of an extreme).

Materials matter

When it comes to electric guitar strings, the most common material used is nickel-plated steel. It offers a good amount of brightness and warmth and is relatively durable. Another popular option is pure nickel, which is warmer. The third common material is stainless steel which is the most resistant to corrosion, making it the most durable of the three. It is also popular for its brightness and sustains.

“Great, so which one do I get?”, you as?. Well, I think you know the answer already. You’ve got to try them all and see what you like the most. Simple as that!

The abyss between new and old strings

Fresh new strings are a thing of beauty. However, most players do not change strings often enough. New strings sound crisp, tight, have more sustain and feel better. On the other hand, old strings sound dull, are harder to tune and feel worn. But a lot of guitar players tend to forget about this. Part of the issue is that strings deteriorate very gradually. You might not grasp how bad your strings are until you finally replace them.

When you finally do restring them, it suddenly becomes very clear how worn your old strings truly were.

How often you change strings is crucial

You might be thinking… ok then, how often should I change strings? There is not a straight answer to this. A series of factors come into play: how hard do you pick/strum, how much do you sweat, how often do you play, how humid/dry is your environment, etc. Some players will have to change strings more often than others. This could mean one week, or it could mean one month. You have to develop your own criteria based on how your strings sound, feel and look.

It’s all about that bass

 The lower guitar strings (D, A and low E) present a few manufacturing aspects that we don’t find on the higher strings. The core of these lower strings is wounded. The core itself can be either round or hex (from hexagonal). Then, then strings can be either round wound (more textured, and the most used), flat wound (flat) or half-round (hybrid).

You can maximize the life of your strings

 There are two things you can do to maximize the duration of your strings. The first one is to wash your hands before you play. The second one is to use a dry cloth to wipe your strings after playing. If you are wondering… why do I have to wipe if I washed my hands? Well, because sweat, small traces of skin, and greasiness affect your stings, even if you can’t see it.

Is this too much to commit to? Feel that this cuts down on your inspiration and impulse to just grab the guitar and play? How about… just wash your hands after eating fried chicken before you play the guitar? That would help, and hopefully not derail your moment of inspiration.

Wrapping it all up

Understanding a bit about guitar strings will definitely have a very positive impact on your playing. You will sound better by making sure your strings are in tip-top shape. You will also have more fun and less stress by avoiding constantly breaking strings. Not to mention, you will sound crisp and feel that the music is vibrating at its very best.

That’s it for this week.  Stay tuned and…

Peace Out!

The Guitar Head

Introducing the Guitar Setup

Introducing the Guitar Setup

Hi,

It’s always nice to see you back!

I’m going to begin this guitar blog post by talking about automobiles. Stay with me here…

The famous British motoring TV show ‘Top Gear’ once challenged its presenters to make a Renault minivan (not exactly a racing car) achieve a faster track lap-time than a Mitsubishi Evo (definitely a racing car). Unsurprisingly they failed at this task. But one interesting point was highlighted in the process.

Blowing over 80% of their £9,000 tuning budget on uprated brakes, wheels, tires, suspension, and racing seats resulted in shaving a mere couple of seconds off the cars original lap-time. But they then had the bright idea of simply giving the minivan a good general service – filters, injectors, fluids, etc (costing just a few hundred pounds) which produced a power increase of nearly 50 BHP and another couple of seconds sliced from the clock.

The moral of this story? Simple maintenance gives astonishing effects. And in the world of the guitar, this starts with what we call a setup.

So, what is a guitar setup?

It’s actually fairly similar to a service on a car. A technician will check how the guitar performs, see if there are any issues with the body or electrics, replace consumables (strings rather than tires) and generally ensure that it sounds right. Maybe even add a drop of oil here and there. Not engine oil, obviously…

And why do I need one?

Well, you might not! If it’s feeling great to play and sounding sweet then why mess with it?

But guitars (like cars) might not be set to perform at their absolute best even brand new and fresh from the dealer. And guitars (unlike cars) are usually made from wood, a material that will respond to changes in humidity and temperature over time, and certainly be more susceptible to rough handling than the bodywork on your Honda.

Put very simply, a setup costing between around $50 – $150 (depending on work required) could easily make a $100 instrument play like it’s a $500 instrument. You have to admit that sounds like a bargain.

Sold! So how do they do it?

Your chosen guitar technician will discuss what you hope to achieve with the setup, including any string preferences and possible playing style considerations (for example, the last work I had done to a guitar involved switching to fat gauge flat-wound chromes for pure jazz use). You both agree upon the desired outcome and your budget for the work.

The technician will start by playing your guitar and making a general assessment, before removing the existing strings. They’ll then focus on some key areas…

Checking and setting up the neck

This is probably the main reason you want setup, and definitely the part of the process that yields the greatest gains. This job makes the action of the strings over the neck as sweet as possible, and will involve some or all of the following procedures;

Truss rod adjustment: Most steel string guitars have a metal rod inside the length of the neck, designed to counteract the string tension and keep the neck straight. This is usually adjustable at the headstock end of an electric guitar (beneath a cover) or within the body of an acoustic guitar at the body/neck joint.

Bridge adjustment: This adjusts the height of the bridge, and consequently the string height above the frets on the neck. Usually do-able by adjusting screws on an electric guitar; with an acoustic, it’s achieved by sanding or shimming the bridge saddle. And with a Floyd-Rose style floating bridge – every guitar technicians’ nemesis – it’s done through delicately balancing the weight of the strings against the tremolo system spring tension while using a lot of bad languages and probably making some kind of deal with the devil…

Nut adjustment: This adjusts the height of either the entire nut or the individual string slots cut into the nut. Achieved by either cutting deeper string slots or by shimming up the height of the nut. Fortunately, it’s not a common job, but probably the one requiring most skill – your tech will make the right choice here.

Fret dressing: This is usually a standalone job rather than part of a regular setup unless there are major issues with the frets that are unavoidably affecting playability. Frets do wear down over time – remember you’re jamming metal into metal whenever you play the guitar – and will require infrequent maintenance (sometimes even replacement). A fret dress involves leveling and re-shaping the metal frets themselves, using a variety of measuring/leveling tools, files, and other fairly specialist equipment.

Clean & Polish frets and fretboard: The final part of sorting the neck. Just accept that your hands are disgustingly filthy – end of the argument. This means that frets will get dull or dirty, and unimaginable levels of grime can build up on the surface of the fretboard. All the muck is removed with appropriate cleaning materials, and the whole fingerboard is polished up.

Structural check

Your guitar tech will check over the whole instrument for any general structural issues. How does the neck joint look? Is that scratch-plate secured properly? Any problems with the interior bracing, binding or the back/front of an acoustic guitar body? Now’s the perfect time to have a look inside the sound-hole with a mirror and mini torch to see if anything is amiss.

And while the strings are off the guitar it’s always worth checking the tuners. Are they too stiff? Do they rattle around loose? Either way, screws will be tightened or loosened as required, oiled if necessary, and entire units replaced if you both agree it’s essential.

Electronics

A relatively simple part of the process compared with the neck! Checks are made to confirm all electrics are screwed into/onto the instrument correctly, ensuring no wires have come loose, making sure the jack socket works and that there’s no nasty crackles or pops when adjusting the controls. Usually just a case of tightening things up and cleaning the inside of pots and switches with contact cleaner. Oh, and making sure batteries in active circuits aren’t dead!

New strings

Probably the simplest part of refreshing your guitars sound. Especially if the reason for the setup is to adjust the instrument for a substantially different gauge or type of strings.

Intonation

Once the strings are back on, it’s time to correctly set the intonation. This is ensuring that the string produces the correct pitch on each fret, and is set by making adjustments on the bridge saddle while checking the pitch with an accurate electronic tuner. Fairly easily done on most electric guitars (using just a screwdriver) but requires physical work to the non-adjustable saddles on most acoustic guitars.

Final clean and polish

Well since your tech has now completely tidied up the way the guitar plays, it’d be a crime not to make it look just as gorgeous as it feels!

Wrapping it up

And as if by magic, it now seems like you’re holding and playing a completely new guitar. No kidding here – it’s like unwrapping a new Christmas present. This means you’ll want to play it more and more. Which then means that, before too long, it’ll be ready for another setup. And that will just make you want to play even more for even longer. Which then means….

…you get the idea.

Keep your eyes glued to your inbox for next week’s blog…you just never know what we’re going to be talking about!

So…until then…

Peace Out!

The Guitar Head

How To Read Chord Charts

Reading Chord Charts

Hi,

Welcome back!

Public Service Announcement

For some time now our blogs have focused mainly on “advice” for the beginner guitarist.  I remember what it was like when I first started out playing (a long…LONG time ago).  Everything that we have been talking about were things that I wish someone had told me as I was trying to learn – I had to figure out a lot of it myself through a lot of trial and error.  I figure that it always helps to have someone on your side to help guide you like your interest and playing abilities improve.

Moving forward I’m going to start weaving in posts on the “how” instead of the “why” every now and then.  Sure, I’ll still be giving you great advice and things to consider from time to time. 

Besides…no one else listens to me – just ask my wife and kids.  With you, I have a captive audience…<img class=” width=”33″ height=”33″ />

I’m just feeling that it’s time to introduce practical examples of various techniques to help you grow in your playing.  This will give you great ways to put the advice into practical use. 

Sound good?

Well alright then…let’s get into it!

Understanding Chord Charts

This week we are going to do a simple review of a basic skill set that is an absolute must for anyone that is trying to learn to play the guitar, whether they are taking private lessons or making a go of it on their own – knowing how to read chord charts.

You may already be an expert at this.  If so, then great!

There are those that are just starting out, and may seem like absolutely everything about playing the guitar is a mystery.  Let’s take a few minutes to solve at least a few of them!

Inevitably when you are looking to learn to play a song you’ll come across diagrams that look like this:

These are called chord charts, and they are a standard (and very efficient) way to show you how to play just about any chord.

But how do you read them?

Open chords

Looking at the first chart, it shows how to play an open position C chord.  The six lines that are going up and down represent the six strings on your guitar, with the low E (6th) string shown at the far left.

The lines going left to right represent the frets.  One special point to note is that the line at the top of the chart (right under the “C” name) is a little thicker than the others.  In this case, that thick line represents the nut of the guitar.

The solid dots tell you where to fret the notes (that is, where to put your fingers on the neck), and the numbers at the bottom are recommendations for which of your fingers to use.

For reference, your fingers are typically identified as follows:

  • 1: index finger
  • 2: middle finger
  • 3: ring finger
  • 4: pinky
  • T: thumb (occasionally you’ll run into a chord fingering where you’ll wrap your thumb over the top of the neck and fret a note on the 6th  It doesn’t happen often though)

Topping it off is the X’s and O’s that you’ll find above that top line. No…I’m not trying to tell you how much I love you guys (even though I really, really do)!  

These simply mean which strings are meant to be played in the chord.  An X means the string is not to be played, and an O means the string is to be played open.

Barre chords

The chord charts for barre chords are pretty much exactly the same as the ones you’ll see for open chords.  There are a few minor differences, though.

If you compare the second chord chart to the first, you’ll see that there a piece of text that says “3fr.”.  All that means is that, instead of playing at the nut, you are starting out on the 3rd fret.  If you look closely you’ll also see that the top line isn’t thick like the open chord chart.  That’s because the nut isn’t in the equation.

As a quick side note – playing a note at the 3rd fret means placing your fingers in between the 2nd and 3rd frets.  In our chart, the top line actually represents the 2nd fret.

Lastly, you’ll see a curved line at the top.  That is a way to show that you are holding down several strings at one time with a single finger – which is exactly how a barre chord is fingered.

Chord charts for alternate tunings

As a standard, chord charts are intended to show how a chord is played when your guitar is tuned in standard tuning (E A D G B E, low to high).  But part of what makes chord charts so flexible is that, once you understand what all of the lines and dots mean, you can show how to play chords when your guitar is tuned in an alternate tuning.

The key here is knowing when the piece of music you are working with is indeed being played with a guitar that is tuned to a different standard.  

As a quick example, here is a C chord chart for a guitar tuned in open G (D G D G B D, low to high):

Doesn’t look like your typical C chord now, does it?  Of course, it doesn’t…but that’s the point – a chord chart will be able to show you how to play any chord, regardless of where it is on the neck or how the guitar is tuned.  

Yes, alternate tunings are more of an advanced topic, for sure…but I mention it only to show how well a chord chart will tell you what you need to know.

Conclusion

That’ll wrap things up for this week.  We will be taking a look at other ways to notate guitar playing next week.  And, trust me on this one – what we will be looking at next will be your best friend, especially if you are getting into playing single-note lines and full out guitar solos.

I’ll catch you on the flip side, so until next time…

Peace out!

The Guitar Head

How to Read Guitar Tablature

Reading Guitar Tablature

Hi

It’s always good to see you back!

Last week we started talking about the different ways to visually document how to play the guitar – without having to learn how to read formal sheet music. 

Chord charts were our first stop, and this week we are going to take a look at guitar tablature.

Chord charts are great for…chords.  It’s true that they are a very simple and effective way to show how to play a chord, but they really don’t do much else.  They don’t show you how a particular chord fits into the context of a song.

So how can you learn to play a complete piece of music, then?  Especially if there are some single note melodies or guitar solos?

Guitar tablature to the rescue! (cue the superhero music…)

Let’s take a look at what guitar tablature is, how to read it, and also go over some pros and cons that you should be aware of

What is guitar tablature?

Guitar tablature (or “tab” for short) is a way to easily show how to play any song/chord pattern/melody without knowing how to read music.  It’s kind of like chord charts in that it uses lines and numbers to tell you where to fret notes – but that’s where the similarities end.

More than likely you have seen it before; it typically looks like this:

The line on the top is standard formal sheet music notation, and the bottom line is the actual guitar tab.  It’s not uncommon to see just the bottom line in different forms (more on that later).

How to read guitar tab

Let’s take a closer look at the bottom line.

The six horizontal lines represent the six strings on your guitar.  The line at the bottom is for the 6th (low E) string, and the line at the top depicts the 1st string (high E). 

The numbers relate to which fret you are supposed to play for a particular note (for example, 1 for the first fret, 14 for the 14th fret, and so on.).  Open strings use a”0”.

Any time you see two numbers on top of each other means that those strings are to be played at the same time.  This way you can easily show how to play double stops or full-blown chords. 

So, looking at my example, it is a single note melody that is basically an ascending A pentatonic minor scale, with an open Am chord thrown in at the end.

Pretty simple, right?

As with most things though, the guitar tab certainly isn’t perfect.  Time for the good, the bad, and the ugly…

The Good

Guitar tab shows you exactly where to play the notes on the neck for a given melody or chord progression.  Formal sheet music (for those that have the ability to read it) will tell you the note, but it can’t tell you where on the neck you’re supposed to be.  With a guitar that’s a big deal because there are so many ways to play the same note with the same pitch. 

For example, the same E note can be played in several positions:

  • 6th string, 12th fret
  • 5th string, 7th fret
  • 4th string, 2nd fret

Guitar tab keeps the needs of a guitarist in mind.  With a piano, this kind of thing doesn’t matter because there is only one key that will play a note in a particular pitch.

Tab also is the best (in my opinion) way to learn to play single note lines or solos.  You can follow the notes one by one just like with sheet music, but you are guided every step of the way.

It can also show you where to add note articulations (bends, slides, hammer-ons, etc.)  Can’t get that from sheet music…no, sir, not at all.

The Bad

There are limitations, unfortunately.  Formal sheet music has the ability to display note duration and time signatures.  Anyone that can sight read music (no easy task for the guitar) could really pick up a piece of music and play it exactly as it is supposed to sound right from the get-go.

The tab shows you where to play in logical order, but it can’t tell you how long or short a note or chord should be held.  That’s a good reason why you often see a tab like our example – sheet music on top and tab on the bottom.

The Ugly

For the most part, the tab is a tab.  What I mean by that is you may see different ways of doing it.  Professional tabs tend to look like my example (because that’s how I roll 😊).  There are text-based tab generators that can do the same thing but it’s just…well…ugly.

Check this out compared to what we’ve been looking at so far:

See what I mean?  It’s really the same thing…the same information is there.  It just doesn’t look as good.  And, tab like this doesn’t give you the formal sheet music reference either.

Conclusion

So, there you go.  You should now know how to read guitar tab, and that’s really saying that you can learn how to play just any song that’s ever been created.  I’m exaggerating of course, but there are a gazillion websites out there (some better than others, that’s for sure) that have pretty extensive tab libraries.  Take a few minutes and you should be able to find tabs for whatever you need.

That’s a wrap for this week.  Keep your eyes peeled on your email inbox for next week’s free lesson!

So…until next time,

Peace Out!

The Guitar Head

Guitar Humidifiers

Guitar Humidifiers

Nice to see you again,

It’s been a long and winding road (sorry for the Beatles pun), but it’s time to bring our series on tuning to a close.

When we left off last time, we had discussed a method of manual tuning that used open strings.  To finish things off we’ll look at using natural harmonics to get everything tuned up in tip-top shape.  Are you a little fuzzy on harmonics?  Take a look back through our previous series on them to get back up to speed (you did save them, right?).

Manual Method – Harmonics

To use this method, we will be using natural harmonics.

As with all manual tuning methods, the first thing to do is get a good reference note (typically the low E).  We went over a few of the best ways to do that last week:

  • Use a piano
  • Use a mobile app that will produce a tone for a perfect E note

Once your low E is tuned to proper pitch, play a natural harmonic at the 5th fret.  The resulting pitch is an E note, but it is two octaves higher than the open low E.

Here’s where the relationship between the strings in standard tuning comes into effect – that harmonic just happens to be the same one that you get when you play a natural harmonic on the 7th fret of the A string.

You may be saying “who cares”?  I’m saying “you should” -because that’s how you get you A string tuned relative to your E string!

A few quick tips:

  • Similar to tuning with open strings, let both notes ring out together so you can hear the differences between them. You can then tune up to get them just right (no pulsating beat).
  • When playing a natural harmonic, place your finger directly over the fret (not behind it as you typically would) and use just enough finger pressure to get the harmonics to ring out. You should never be pressing the string down to touch the fret; just a little bit will do ‘ya).

So now your E and A are tuned – good deal!

To do the rest:

4…

For the D string, play the natural harmonic at the 5th fret of the A string.  That is the same as the harmonic on the 7th fret of the D string.  Adjust the tuning machine for the D string as needed.

3…

On to the G string (here you do the same thing).  A natural harmonic at the 5th fret of the D string is a doppelganger for the one at the 7th fret of the G string.

2…(hey – wait a minute)

Next the B string – here’s where things get a little goofy.  Because of the way standard tuning is laid out there is no set of harmonics between the G and B strings to get things tuned up to each other.  Here you have to go back to the open-string method that we talked about already.

Fret the note on the G string on the 4th fret (actually, fret the note – don’t try to play a harmonic).  Then tune up the open B string.

1…(back to normal)

Now we can get back to the harmonic thingy.

Play the harmonic on the 5th fret of the B string.  That’s the identical twin for the 7th fret harmonic on the high E (1st) string.

Got it?  Good – once you go through the entire process, your guitar should be properly tuned up and ready to go!

Alternate Tuning

The majority of songs that you’ll hear will be played with guitars set to standard tuning (EADGBE, low to high).  But that doesn’t mean that you can’t spice things up a bit…

Here are a few examples.  The tunings are from low to high and I’ve put a reference song or two with them:

  • Drop D (DADGBE): “Unchained” – Van Halen
  • Double Drop D (DADGBD): “Going To California” – Led Zeppelin
  • Open G (DGDGBD): pretty much anything from Keith Richards (he actually does away with the low D string altogether)

Keep this in mind – once you start going away from standard tuning, any chord shapes that you have learned will give a different result (since the notes aren’t the same).  Sometimes that’s a cool thing though – you may find that you like it!

Alternate tunings are certainly a topic that needs its’ own blog series so we may get to them in future installments – I just wanted to quickly mention them here so you are aware that there are options out there.

Conclusion

Our discussion on tuning over the last few weeks has covered several topics.  You should now know what tuning is and how important it is in order for your guitar to sound as it should when you’re playing.

We also discussed several different types of electronic tuners (which always should be your first choice), and then took a look a few manual methods to get things tuned up to where they need to be.

Then, just as a bonus (because that’s how I roll), we did a quick fly-through on alternate tunings.  In fact…we may revisit that topic at some point because it can be so useful to add variety.  I just don’t want you to get “tuned out” since we are “tuning in” about all of this tuning stuff…

The bottom line is that you should have a much better understanding of everything that is involved with tuning, and there should be no reason for you to ever play a horribly out of tune guitar ever again! 

Thanks for sticking with me here…

That’s it for this series – but that doesn’t mean we’re done.  Not by a long shot!  Check back next week for our next topic…

Until next time…Peace out!

The Guitar Head

Tuning – (Part 4)

Nice to see you again,

It’s been a long and winding road (sorry for the Beatles pun), but it’s time to bring our series on tuning to a close.

When we left off last time, we had discussed a method of manual tuning that used open strings.  To finish things off we’ll look at using natural harmonics to get everything tuned up in tip-top shape.  Are you a little fuzzy on harmonics?  Take a look back through our previous series on them to get back up to speed (you did save them, right?).

Manual Method – Harmonics

To use this method, we will be using natural harmonics.

As with all manual tuning methods, the first thing to do is get a good reference note (typically the low E).  We went over a few of the best ways to do that last week:

  • Use a piano
  • Use a mobile app that will produce a tone for a perfect E note

Once your low E is tuned to proper pitch, play a natural harmonic at the 5th fret.  The resulting pitch is an E note, but it is two octaves higher than the open low E.

Here’s where the relationship between the strings in standard tuning comes into effect – that harmonic just happens to be the same one that you get when you play a natural harmonic on the 7th fret of the A string.

You may be saying “who cares”?  I’m saying “you should” -because that’s how you get you A string tuned relative to your E string!

A few quick tips:

  • Similar to tuning with open strings, let both notes ring out together so you can hear the differences between them. You can then tune up to get them just right (no pulsating beat).
  • When playing a natural harmonic, place your finger directly over the fret (not behind it as you typically would) and use just enough finger pressure to get the harmonics to ring out. You should never be pressing the string down to touch the fret; just a little bit will do ‘ya).

So now your E and A are tuned – good deal!

To do the rest:

4…

For the D string, play the natural harmonic at the 5th fret of the A string.  That is the same as the harmonic on the 7th fret of the D string.  Adjust the tuning machine for the D string as needed.

3…

On to the G string (here you do the same thing).  A natural harmonic at the 5th fret of the D string is a doppelganger for the one at the 7th fret of the G string.

2…(hey – wait a minute)

Next the B string – here’s where things get a little goofy.  Because of the way standard tuning is laid out there is no set of harmonics between the G and B strings to get things tuned up to each other.  Here you have to go back to the open-string method that we talked about already.

Fret the note on the G string on the 4th fret (actually, fret the note – don’t try to play a harmonic).  Then tune up the open B string.

1…(back to normal)

Now we can get back to the harmonic thingy.

Play the harmonic on the 5th fret of the B string.  That’s the identical twin for the 7th fret harmonic on the high E (1st) string.

Got it?  Good – once you go through the entire process, your guitar should be properly tuned up and ready to go!

Alternate Tuning

The majority of songs that you’ll hear will be played with guitars set to standard tuning (EADGBE, low to high).  But that doesn’t mean that you can’t spice things up a bit…

Here are a few examples.  The tunings are from low to high and I’ve put a reference song or two with them:

  • Drop D (DADGBE): “Unchained” – Van Halen
  • Double Drop D (DADGBD): “Going To California” – Led Zeppelin
  • Open G (DGDGBD): pretty much anything from Keith Richards (he actually does away with the low D string altogether)

Keep this in mind – once you start going away from standard tuning, any chord shapes that you have learned will give a different result (since the notes aren’t the same).  Sometimes that’s a cool thing though – you may find that you like it!

Alternate tunings are certainly a topic that needs its’ own blog series so we may get to them in future installments – I just wanted to quickly mention them here so you are aware that there are options out there.

Conclusion

Our discussion on tuning over the last few weeks has covered several topics.  You should now know what tuning is and how important it is in order for your guitar to sound as it should when you’re playing.

We also discussed several different types of electronic tuners (which always should be your first choice), and then took a look a few manual methods to get things tuned up to where they need to be.

Then, just as a bonus (because that’s how I roll), we did a quick fly-through on alternate tunings.  In fact…we may revisit that topic at some point because it can be so useful to add variety.  I just don’t want you to get “tuned out” since we are “tuning in” about all of this tuning stuff…

The bottom line is that you should have a much better understanding of everything that is involved with tuning, and there should be no reason for you to ever play a horribly out of tune guitar ever again! 

Thanks for sticking with me here…

That’s it for this series – but that doesn’t mean we’re done.  Not by a long shot!  Check back next week for our next topic…

Until next time…Peace out!

The Guitar Head

Tuning – (Part 3)

Tuning – (Part-3)

Welcome to Part 3 of our series on tuning – we’re getting close to the end!

So far, we talked about what tuning is and also reviewed some of the different types of electronic tuners that are available.  (Just as a reminder – my top recommendation is to use an electronic tuner of some type whenever you can.)

But there will be those times when a tuner isn’t available.  So what do you do then?  Well – you go “old school” and use one of a few different methods to tune your guitar manually.

Let’s dig in, but before we get too deep we need to discuss some of the things that make manual tuning not necessarily the best way to go…

Disclaimer #1 – Note References

Before we get into the specific techniques used to manually tune, I want to review some of the things that really drive me to recommend using an electronic tuner if at all possible.

One thing that an electronic tuner gives you is true and absolute references for your notes.  By that, I mean if your tuner says you are correctly tuned to an A note at concert pitch of 440 Hz, then you’re exactly where you need to be.  That’s, like, super important – especially if you are playing with other musicians (especially a keyboard player).

Manual methods tend to tune great from the viewpoint of the notes/strings being relative to each other.  But you have to have an accurate starting point for a reference note.  If your starting point isn’t exactly right (a little sharp or flat) then your whole guitar will be off.  It’ll sound great if you’re playing by yourself, but the minute you play with someone else that is tuned correctly you’ll immediately be able to see the problem.

Disclaimer #2 – Your “Ear”

Another point to consider when trying to manually tune is how well your “ear” is developed.  The more you play the more you’ll get a feel for hearing notes and how they relate to each other.  You’ll hear this skill referred to as “ear training” or “developing your ear”.

Manual tuning is completely dependent on hearing two notes and getting them to sound exactly the same.  For beginners that can be kind of tricky.

One thing that can help here is to listen for a slight pulsating sound when both notes you are working with are being played at the same time.  As you are tuning you’ll hear it – a low level throbbing between the two notes that gets slower as the pitches get relatively close to being the same.  Get the pulsing to go away and your two notes should be pretty doggone close.

I bring these “disclaimers” up because, even though you are following the manual tuning processes to the letter, these two things have a good chance of giving you some trouble to get things just right.  Keeping this in mind, let’s take a look at a few different ways to manually tune.

Manual Tuning – Method #1

This method is the most common way you’ll find for manual tuning.

To start out, get your low E (6th) string as close to a correct E note as possible.  You can do this by using a piano or keyboard to get the reference note (if you just happen to have one handy), or another quick way is to download a free smartphone app that will produce reference tones.

Once you have the E set to where it needs to be, then you tune the A string.  Fret the A note on the 6th string at the 5th fret.  That is the same octave of an A note as an open A (5th) string.  Adjust the tuning machine for the 5th string until the two notes match.  It’s a big help if you let both notes ring as you make the adjustments.

Now that the A string is all set, then move to tune the D string.  You’ll use the same process – fret the D note on the 5th fret of the 5th string.  It’s the same note as the open D (4th string).  Adjust until the notes are exactly the same (remember, listen for the “pulsating” sound to get slower until it completely disappears).

Tune the G string?  Same deal – fret the D string at the 5th fret (G note) and tune the open 3rd string accordingly.

Tuning the B string is a little different.  Based on how the notes for standard tuning are arranged, you’ll be using the 4th fret of the G (3rd) string to get your B (open 2nd string) reference note.

Finish up with tuning the high E (1st) string by going back to fretting the note on the 5th fret of the B string to get your high E reference note.  Tune up your open E.

Check out the chart below to reference the whole process – I’ve even color-coded the notes for you at no additional charge!

That’s it!  It really is a pretty simple process.  After doing it for a while, you’ll find that your ear will be developed enough to easily tell when the two notes you are working with are sounding the same pitch.

One last tip – it helps to keep things consistent, and your tuning more stable, if you start out with the string you’re trying to tune at a lower pitch than the reference note.  Slowly increase the tension to bring the note to pitch.  Going slow helps to keep you from overshooting and taking the note sharp, and it’s a lot easier to hear the note pulsations to find the sweet spot where the notes are identical.

Conclusion

Manual tuning, while easy to do once you get the hang of it, isn’t necessarily the most accurate way to get your guitar tuned.  Again, I’d recommend using an electronic tuner as much as you can – especially for a beginner.  This is because of having exact reference notes and your ear isn’t as developed as it should be when you’re first starting out.

There are other ways to tune manually, and we’ll take a look at those in next week’s installment for this series.  You never know…we may even briefly touch on what is called “alternate tunings” (bonus material!!).  We’ll be wrapping things up then and moving on.

So, until next week – peace out!

The Guitar Head

Tuning – (Part 2)

Tuning – (Part-2)

Welcome back,

It’s The Guitar Head.

Last week we started a series on tuning.  We talked about what “tuning a guitar” is and briefly touched on the best ways to do it.

We left off discussing what it actually means to tune your guitar to proper standard tuning, and also briefly touched on how using a guitar tuner is easier and more accurate than the several manual methods you could use.

Trust me on this one, people…using a tuner is an absolute must.  Especially when you are a beginner.  Your “ear” (that is, your sense of hearing notes and sensing when something is radically wrong and is approaching critical-stage-4-nuclear-type-destruction) hasn’t had the chance to develop yet.  Heck, even the pros use them, right?

Now that we have a good understanding of what this tuning-stuff is all about (I’d suggest re-reading last week’s post, just in case), let’s move on to discussing the best methods and tools to use to get your tuning as accurate as possible.

Electronic Guitar Tuners

To briefly recap from last week, a guitar tuner is a device that will automatically detect the frequency of a vibrating string, and translate that info to show roughly what note you are trying to play.

There are several types of tuners, each with its own pros and cons.

Headstock tuners

Well…this one should be a little obvious…

They call it a “headstock tuner” because it mounts…you guessed it…to the headstock!

(No, this isn’t an advertisement or an endorsement for Snark tuners.  The picture just looked cool!)

Headstock tuners clip right on without any permanent mounting.  They measure the frequency of a string through the vibrations that resonate through the guitar, through the tuner clip mount and into the tuner itself.  That’s where all of the magic happens.

Looking at the picture you can see the name of the note you are trying to play (this would be a D note or your open 4th string).  The range to the left shows when you are flat, and to the right depicts when the note is sharp.  That nifty little arrow that’s directly over the letter “D”?  That pops up when your string is exactly tuned to the proper frequency to produce a D note at concert pitch.

While they are handy and extremely portable, they can tend to fall off if you keep them on while playing like a madman…

Headstock tuners can be used with either acoustic or electric guitars, but you may typically see them more used with acoustics.  Why, you ask?  Let’s just say that most (not all) electric players like to keep things at their feet.

Which brings us to…

Pedal tuners

With a pedal tuner, you don’t have to worry about clipping that thing on your headstock, forgetting about it, and having it get thrown halfway across the venue when you are doing your best rock star moves.

You ARE doing rock star moves onstage right?  You have to…that’s all part of playing the guitar! J

Pedal tuners are intended to be an integral part of your signal chain.  They are connected by the guitar cable that typically goes right from your guitar into your amp.  If you are using a pedal tuner, the cord from your guitar goes into the tuner, then you have another cord that goes to the amp (or on to another pedal; tuners are usually one of the first parts of a guitarist’s pedal board).

They determine the frequency in somewhat of a different way than with a headstock tuner.  They don’t measure vibrations through the guitar body (since they aren’t actually mounted to your guitar).  The method they use is by analyzing the frequency of the electrical signal that is coming out of your guitar’s pickups.

One big benefit of pedal tuners is that they typically mute any signal output when they are in use.  That means you can tune up without any sound coming through your amp.  That’s kind of a big deal…I’m pretty sure no one in the audience will want to hear you tuning up!

(I’m digressing a little bit here, but it’s in the same vein – most multi-effects pedals on the market today also include a tuner as a feature.)

Pedal tuners are very handy to have and I’d recommend them as your first choice, simply because of the amount of accuracy and flexibility they offer.

Stand-alone tuner

One option that was very popular in the past with beginners was to get a stand-alone tuner, similar to the one in the picture below:

These types of tuners do have some functionality and a certainly better than nothing, but given a choice, I’d recommend a pedal or headstock tuner first.

These units typically have two ways to acquire the signal:  through a guitar cord or by using an internal microphone that’s built into the unit.  While using a guitar cord is a great method, these units aren’t intended for live use where they are an integrated part of your signal chain.  Whenever I’ve used them I’ve had to tune up, then disconnect to plug back into my amp.  Not very efficient if you need to tune on the fly.

The internal microphone method works OK, but it is prone to picking up background noise.  That’s fine if you are in a quiet place like your bedroom, but not so much if you’re in a noisy environment.

Mobile Apps

Yeah…there’s an app for that…

There’s a ton of free apps out there (for both iOS and Android) that will help you tune.  From my experience, these are just “OK”.  They use the microphone on the phone itself as the signal input and that’s not always the most robust way to do it.  I mean – really – it’s not like you can plug your ¼” cord into your iPhone!

Since the phone microphone may be somewhat limiting, your results may vary greatly.  I’ve found that the signal jumps around a lot and it’s hard to get consistent and even signal.

Some of these apps offer a function where they will actually sound out true reference notes for each string.  That’s great – but only if your ear is developed enough to be able to tell if notes are sharp or flat.  When you’re just starting out that can be kind of tough, believe it or not.  I’ve encountered beginners that simply could not tell, between two notes that were relatively close to each other, which one was higher than the other.

So, your mileage may vary.  Still, you can’t typically beat the price!

Conclusion

There’s no question that, if you want to tune quickly and accurately, an electronic tuner is a way to go.  But I’ll tell you something – the guitar has been around for a heck of a lot longer than tuner technology has.

There are several manual methods that you can use to tune, and that’s what we will be going over in next week’s installment of this series – we’ll be sending it out like clockwork so keep your eyes glued to your inbox.

Until next time – peace out!

The Guitar Head

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