Friday 28 November 2008


I'm going to go all girly on you now and talk about nails.  I play with my fingernails, so that means I need to have good nails in order to play...if you don't play on nails then excellent & great stuff, you'll never have to be girly, just cut them off at the base and go!

Nails...I can offer a few tips - unfortunately the first one is "be born with good genetics for nails".  My nails are quite strong, I can play on steel string with natural nails and although they do wear, they can take it.  On nylon, well, I have to keep filing them down.

I've used nail oils in the past, the stuff that is supposed to strengthen your nails and cuticles, I don't know if it made any difference.  I don't bother anymore.

I shape mine fairly often - the moment there is a small nick in one I quickly file it smooth again.  The little nicks can turn into cracks and rips real quick.  I keep nail files all around the house and in my car so there is never an excuse not to keep them trim.  If you "break a nail" <sob> you won't enjoy playing for at least a week!

Word on the street is only file in one direction, but I haven't found any difference if I file in both directions.  Shape down the sides of the nail so that you don't let rips start through the sides. Keep them as long or short as what give you your favourite tone. Don't bite them and don't use them as screwdrivers!

If you are not blessed with good nails then try cutting them off to the base and play hard on fingertips on a steel stringer for a while until tough callouses start to form.  You'll find that playing on callouses gives a good feel and sound on steel strings when you are used to it, and you never have to worry about breaking a nail.  I triend this once, but I just didn't like it, so I've gone back to playing with nails on nylon.  Nails are nice for that classical sound - even the non-classical sort of stuff I play.

To protect your nails further do things with your left hand that you normally do with your right.  Open doors, scratching dried food of the babys high chair, etc - keep the right hand away from potential nail breakages.  Wear gloves when you wash dishes.  Don't play immediately after having a shower when you nails are waterlogged and weak.

This is only about the thumb and 3 fingers on the right hand (I keep my pinky on right hand short, I don't pick with pinky so there is no need to look after that nail).  On the left hand I used to cut them off at the base but I found that leaving just a tiny bit of nail stops your skin from trying to push up over your nail when fretting.  I just cut left hand nails with clippers, I rarely bother shaping them.

Learn you nails too; my right middle fingernail has a ridge that grows through it making a weak point, right on the striking bitey part.  I'm careful to keep that section of the nail smooth.  My right ring fingernail grows really fast but is prone to tearing through the side so I make sure I file both sides low and smooth.

If you have bad nails, maybe consider getting acrylics.  I looked into it once when I was playing on steel, decided against it because of the maintenance.  I think you'd only bother with acrylics if you were fulltime professional and playing on steel.


Thursday 20 November 2008

Loss of Cohesion

I was just messaging with a guy on youtube about "loss of cohesion" know, when you are playing a song, maybe one you know exceptionally well and have been playing it for 5 years, and still you'll be midway through and you completely lose the plot and basically have to stop and start again.  Possibly the most embarrassing thing you can do as a guitarist eh?

I don't think loss of cohesion can be prevented.  Guys like Tommy Emmanuel can simply launch into some default "recovering" improvised thing, then eventually get back on track and people will never even noticed he fluffed it.  I used to occasionally terminally brain fart and basically have to start over again but these days worst case is having to stop and replay from the last key section.  Most of the time if I fluff it I can sort of strum some nonsense and reconnect back to where I should be without dropping the beat, but it is still obvious that I've lost cohesion.  I've got a long way to go before I can fudge past it like The Greats can; I think that requires an extensive knowledge of music theory and being well practised in improvisation.

I think getting over losing cohesion isn't about practising to death note for note, it is more about learning what to do when you _do_ lose cohesion.  So, when practising if I lose cohesion I don't stop and restart, I keep going maybe strum the current chord or do some percussive slaps, at least keep a bass note alive, but keep on beat and meet up at the next key intersection.  For this reason if I am going to start playing a song I already know quite well, I will _always_ play it from start to finish, irrespective of whether I botched it midway through.  The more you botch it, the more you will learn what to do to "play through".

We will always botch it.  The important bit is how you recover.

As for miss-struck notes or fret buzzing or some other awful single note mistake - well that's a different matter.  At least you can play through that without missing a beat ;)

Monday 3 November 2008

Play for an audience!

Now it's only taken me 30 years to realise, but GO PLAY FOR AN AUDIENCE.  Let me explain.

When you first start learning to play the guitar, it's pretty rough, go and hide out of earshot when you are practising.  This will help the people you live with not hate you and guitars for the rest of time.

Typically you will get the right hand reasonable early on, bit longer if you are fingerpicking.  There are only so many patterns you can do with 6 strings - okay, there are infinite, but you'll use only a few in most of your stuff.  The left hand you'll get chords going early on too, but the left hand has to do so many different manoeuvres that you'll be "learning" that hand for the rest of time.

When you start to be able to play a whole song or two, you'll probably have really bad tempo and you'll do lots of pausing while your brain is trying to co-ordinate left hand and right hand.  It's okay, it's how we learn!  Eventually all that stuff going on in your "fore" brain moves into a very convenient "muscle memory" part of your brain.  Convenient, because you don't actually have to think to play the stuff, it just happens.  You can actually have a rudimentary conversation while playing, or after a few quiet ales wonder how on earth your hands know what to do because "it sure ain't me doing that!"

But while we are trying to push the song into muscle memory that's when we get a bit bored and tend to move onto something different.  The curse of half-song playing guitarists.  Don't do it!  This is where audience comes in.

Unless you have a really, really, REALLY good friend who will listen to you, ie, an audience, I suggest you use a video camera as an "audience".  What an audience does is force you to firstly learn the whole song by memory, but secondly, learn it to an acceptable level that won't have the audience looking for the door.

The video camera is great; you feel like you are performing for an audience - you'll probably feel anxious - but importantly you can watch yourself and see where you are getting it wrong.  You can then practise the areas you struggle until they are smooth, aim to eventually post video on the internet to see what the world thinks of you ;)

The next battle, once you are comfortable playing for a camera, is finding a real audience.  I recommend music shops - "test" a guitar and play your songs.  Okay, nobody is _really_ listening but it still feels like an audience so you have to be able to play the songs well.

Where I'm coming from with all of this is about turning your music into that is something "about you" to something that is "about the listener".  Going from being someone who entertains themselves into someone who entertains others.  Playing the riff from smoke on the water with bad tempo hitting the occasional wrong note might amuse _you_ all day; people have been put in jail for trying amuse others doing the same thing.

Only by playing to an audience do you become an entertainer - which is where I think we should all be aiming.  What's the point if you can't share your stuff with your fellow man?  Ultimatley would anything, even if you had the entire world at your disposal, be fun if there was no-one to show it to or share it with?

Obviously the next audience is a real audience - open mike, busking, cafe gigs.  That's where I'm heading - I'll let you know how it goes when I get there :)