Saturday, September 17, 2011

Guitar Gear

I have pretty much all the guitar stuff I need for now. That's not to say I don't want more of course, but for my abilities I have a good set of gear.

First, of course, are my guitars. I have a black cutaway Art & Lutherie acoustic, and a faded cherry Epiphone Custom SG electric. Two guitars is probably overkill for me, but it's nice having an acoustic and an electric for the different sounds and styles of playing. I actually want to get another electric guitar as well, a stratocaster type, but that's getting greedy. Maybe later when I get better.

For amps I have Peavey Vypyr modeling amp and a Vox AC4TV tube amp. The Vypyr is capable of a ton of different sounds and is really fun to experiment with. I have the 30 watt version which goes way louder than I need it to. I never turn the volume more than about 1 or 2, and it goes to 13.

I just bought the Vox AC4TV because I wanted a low-wattage tube amp to play with, and I found a used one at a price I couldn't turn down. It has a great sound to it, and really lets the sound of my guitar shine through. 

I also use an iPad. I watch a lot of videos and learn from tabs, and found my laptop was pretty clunky and inconvenient to use while playing guitar. My Android phone worked really well for this, but the screen is pretty small for my old eyes to see tabs properly with, and even videos were sometimes difficult to make out.

My first instinct was to go with an Android tablet like the Asus Transformer, but in looking at the music apps available for the iPad I had to go with the Apple product. There are way more music related apps available on iPad that simply have no equivalent on Android, like Garageband or Ampkit. Maybe this will change in the future, but I have to go for what works for me now.

I'm really happy with the iPad for videos and tabs, and use the Ampkit link to connect my guitar to it. Garageband is amazing, and Ampkit is great as well.

Now the problem is to learn to play better, and no equipment in the world is going to replace practice.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Why It's Okay To Be Terrible

I just tweeted that I was learning "Mr. Jones" on the guitar by the Counting Crows. My sister was (is?) a big Counting Crows fan and said she wanted to hear me play it. My predictable response was that I was terrible and she would have to wait a long time to hear it.

It probably gets old hearing from me that I'm terrible. People probably think I'm fishing for compliments, or... well, they probably think I'm fishing for compliments.

Fact is, I've been playing guitar for about 7 months and only practice about half an hour each day. I'm slowly getting better, and am enjoying what I do. The girlfriend enjoys hearing me play, and I like learning a new skill.

There are lots of people who have been playing for years, with very basic skills, no sense of rhythm, and very little hope of improving. You could safely call those people terrible (unless they are much larger than you) without being contradicted.

If you put me beside one of those people you would be hard pressed to decide who is better. Yet, rather than call me terrible, you would probably say, "You're not bad for how long you've been playing," or, "I can hear how you've improved." The music is being judged on potential, not on it's present condition. Also, I'm probably much larger than you, although I would hope that this wouldn't colour your judgement.

That's actually fair, but irrelevant to what my skills are at this very moment. I'm okay with that, though. Look through Youtube videos and there are thousands of unskilled people showing off what they can do. Most of them are terrible, but some will get better, and some will get excellent. And they are all having fun with what they are doing at the moment.

You can't get good without being terrible at first, so you either have to be all right with being terrible for a while and work at getting better, or be in denial and think you're already great. Either way, as long as you're enjoying what you're doing, it's okay to be bad.

Guitar Lessons

Just reading through some of my posts on my sparsely updated blog. I noted I had started playing guitar, but didn't mention that I had started taking lessons. I was enjoying playing on my own, but started losing focus and didn't really know what to work on next. My technique also needed work, I found my chords and chord changes were sloppy, and I felt it was time to get some professional help. With the guitar I mean.

Started taking lessons last October at a nearby music store, although I took December off. I will probably take time off lessons from time to time and work on my own.

Really happy with my instructor. He has a university degree in music and plays professionally in venues around the province. He tailors lessons to what we think needs the most work. I wrote "we" because what I'm interested in is always considered.

I was a little unhappy with the experience starting in November. Because he's a professional musician he can't always make it to a lesson because he'll be out of town, or playing somewhere. I understood this, but was told there would be a substitute instructor for my lessons. Twice in November he had to cancel lessons, but the store wouldn't provide a substitute instructor because they were shorthanded or busy.

Although I was extremely pleased with the quality of instruction I felt he wasn't getting the backup he needed from the store. In December I actually made an appointment with another studio for instruction, but was stood up. Didn't make me too happy.

After thinking about it I decided that I could put up with the occasional canceled lesson. He's flexible when I have to change or cancel sessions, and the quality of instruction is very high.

Android Apps for Guitar

When I got my phone I didn't even think about using it for helping with my guitar playing, but it's actually pretty useful. It's convenient and small enough to plop on my music stand without getting in the way of other books or sheet music.

The apps that I use are either standard apps included with Android, or available in the Marketplace. They are all free, although some have paid versions as well.

The most basic tool I use is Music, the default music player for Android. The biggest problem with it though is it doesn't have an A-B repeat mode that allows you to repeat just one section of a song. There is a free app called Squeaker that does A-B repeat. Now the only thing I'd like is the ability to slow down the music.

From the sounds of it, Slow Down Music Trainer would be perfect, although it is not free. Unfortunately as of right now it is only for the iPhone, although the developer claims to be making an Android version. I'm looking forward to it.

Youtube is another great source for learning. There are videos to teach guitar techniques and songs, tips, music videos, and backing tracks. Lots of crap on there of course, but with a little digging you can find some valuable information.

Guitar Backing Tracks searches Youtube for backing tracks based on root note, scales, and style of music. Great for jamming along with.

I use Tabular for searching, downloading and using tabs, but it sorely needs an autoscroll. Also, reading tabs on a small phone screen is a little tough on my aging eyes. This is where I actually see a use for a tablet device, bigger than a phone but not as bulky as a laptop.

Ultimate Guitar Tabs may end up replacing Tabular for me. It integrates with Ultimate Guitar, has autoscroll, and a lot of other really good features. It's not free, but I might end up giving up $2.99 of my carefully hoarded cash for this app because of it's usefulness.

Robotic Guitarist includes a chord finder, metronome, and tuner. I usually use my Korg metronome/tuner at home, but it's nice to have something with me at all times in case I don't have it with me.

If I want something more advanced than the basic metronome included with Robotic Guitarist I use Mobile Metronome. You can tap your tempo, specify the time signature and beat subdivision (quarter notes, triplets, etc.), and even change the sound. More cow bell!

There are one or two other apps I use, but these are the main ones. Now that I'm using my phone for help with my playing I'm looking at tablet devices. I'm still waiting for a reasonably priced tablet that still has the features I need.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Back to Lessons

Didn't take any guitar lessons for December, went back last week and just finished this week's lesson.

I lost a lot of focus over December. I still played, but started to try to learn about 4 different songs at once. Didn't learn any of them, of course. I need to focus a little better and do one thing at a time.

I've started recording the sessions with my phone, and it's really helped with my practicing. I found I was forgetting tips my instructor told me, wasn't getting the rhythm of the pieces right, etc. I think it's really helped me improve, and my instructor agrees.

Started learning the solo to The Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits last week. I'm getting it, all the parts are in place now, I just need to practice more to smooth it out and get up to speed. I originally thought my instructor was nuts thinking I was going to play Mark Knopfler, but it's not nearly as bad as I thought. Of course, I don't play it nearly as well as Knopfler either.

So I'm going to continue to practice Sultans of Swing, but now I'm learning the rhythm to Proud Mary by CCR. Or Ike and Tina. Or whoever. Next week he's planning on teaching me the lead.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Nature Photos

Went to a friend's parent's acreage a few weeks ago and took some pictures with my phone. I'm no nature photographer, and you can't really see the detail with these scaled, compressed pictures, but I was pretty impressed with the quality of today's camera phones compared with phones of just a couple of years ago.

If you look closely you can see caterpillar poop on her left hand.

Things That Bug Me About My Android

Let me be very clear, I love my phone. It's a Motorola Milestone running Android 2.1. It's not the newest, fanciest, fastest phone out, but it has a beautiful, hi-res touch screen and a slide out keyboard. The keyboard was very important, as I find a touchscreen finicky to type with. It's also very customizable, and a lot of fun.

A few months ago I bought an iPod Touch to use as an e-reader, and I'm glad I did. I was very close to buying a dedicated e-reader like the Kobo, but I decided to forgo the large, readable e-ink screen and went for shirt-pocket portability as well as versatility.

Of course, having an iPod Touch made me think about getting a smart phone, but my experience with the Touch, as well as other issues I won't get into right now, made me decide against an iPhone. Eventually I decided upon the phone I have.

I did my research before buying, but there were still a couple of surprises. The biggest one was that applications had to be installed to the phone's internal memory; they couldn't be installed to the SD card. This limits the number of apps you can have installed at the same time. Not a huge deal for me as I really don't use most of the apps I have installed and there are always some I can delete without regret, but it's something I would have liked to know ahead of time.

This has been fixed in Android 2.2, but I either have to wait until I get the update to 2.2, or I have to root my phone and install it myself.

That actually brings me to another issue that I knew about before buying my phone, but it bears mentioning. Most Android phones don't allow the user to update the OS unless the carrier allows it. This has led to phones being several updates behind, with no hope of running the newest software. It's quite contrary to the "open" philosophy touted by Android, but that's for another post.

Most phones can be rooted, allowing you to install "unauthorized" software including OS updates, but that's not something most people are willing to try.

I also wish the battery life was longer. It has to get plugged in every day, which isn't a big deal, but when I've been doing a lot of websurfing or gaming it's a close call whether it's going to make it to the end of the day. I've learned to turn off wi-fi when I'm not using it, and sometimes put it into "airplane mode."

And one other thing. Cut and paste. The iPhone got a lot of flak for coming late to the game with cut and paste, but at least Apple got it right. When I select text on my phone it is impossible to see what is actually being selected because my big finger is in the way. I am always selecting too much text, not enough text, or the wrong text. There may be an easier way to do this, but it isn't immediately obvious.

I'll do another post sometime about what I love about it, which is a lot. I might even bash the iPhone a bit. We'll see.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Electric Guitar

It was becoming difficult to practice my acoustic guitar and stay a good neighbor. Many times I like to practice very early in the morning or late at night, and I live in an apartment building, so I would try to play very quietly. I was worried that would lead to bad technique, plus it wasn't very fun, so I decided to look for an electric guitar.

An unamplified electric guitar is not very loud, and with an amplifier you can plug in headphones and crank the sound, it would be ideal for playing at night without waking the neighbors. Plus, I wanted one.

I spent a lot of time searching for an electric guitar, checking out online classified ads for used guitars and checking out pawnshops. The biggest problem I had was that I really didn't know enough about guitars to make a good judgment on the quality and condition of an instrument. I spent a lot of time reading online reviews and learning more, but the more I learned the more I felt that pawnshops were asking too much for used stuff, and I didn't feel confident enough to buy privately.

Ended up buying a new Epiphone SG Custom with a worn cherry finish. I'm very happy with it. It looks beautiful and is nice to play. Bought a Pocket Pod effects processor and a small practice amp to play around with the sound as well. Having lots of fun with it.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Practice Practices

Practicing guitar is one of those weird things for me. I'm never really sure when I should be going on to the next step. Do I have to get everything perfect, or just pretty good? Usually I just settle for pretty good, especially as I don't think there's enough time in the universe for me to get anything perfect.

I try to rely on the fact that some skills will be practiced even when learning different skills. For example, for a while I kind of stalled when learning open chords. I spent a lot of time, weeks in fact, practicing transitions between chords before going on the the next lesson. That time certainly wasn't wasted, as I did get a lot better with the transitions between chords, but that's also something that gets practiced later on as well, as with finger picking.

On the other hand, getting the transitions better made learning finger picking easier. I think the time learning one skill is almost a constant, if I didn't spend the time in one section I would have spent it in another section.

The other problem is learning a new skill while neglecting old skills. Sometimes, as with finger picking and chords, I'm still practicing the old skill while learning a new one. Now, though, I'm learning pentatonic scales and playing the whole fretboard. I really should keep practicing my chords as well, especially barre chords, which I'm still not great at.

The solution is obvious: learn new skills while practicing the old skills. It feels like it cuts into my learning time, but that's the way it has to be. If I want to learn faster, I'll have to devote more time to practicing.

Friday, September 03, 2010

New Hobby

About ten years ago, maybe less, my mother bought me a guitar for Christmas. Not just a cheap starter guitar, but a very nice black Art & Lutherie cutaway dreadnought. It was part of a musically themed Christmas, where she put a lot of thought and effort into gifts like glasses with music staffs on them, plates with piano keys, and guitar books. It was actually pretty extravagant.

There was a problem. I wasn't really interested in playing guitar.

I took a few lessons when I was a kid, but never got very good. As a kid I liked the idea of being able to play guitar, but didn't want to put in the effort of learning and the hours of practice that are necessary to get even competent. As an adult I knew I would never take the time needed to play. So I strummed it a few times, and into the closet it went, for years.

Mom kept asking me if I was playing it, and I would reply evasively: "A little bit," or "Haven't really had the time," or "I tried it out."

About 3 months ago I decided I needed to take up a hobby that didn't involve computer keyboards or video game controllers and took out the guitar. Downloaded some videos from the internet and started playing. Found I really enjoyed it, and have kept up with it, so far. I've learned a lot, even though I'm still terrible, and though I'm not shredding guitar solos I'm just enjoying what I can do right now, relishing my progress as I slowly get better, and just trying to play through the difficult stuff.

A guitar is a risky gift to give someone, and if you decide to give one as a present be prepared that it may end up as a dust collector. In this case it paid off, although it was years later. Hopefully I'll be playing and enjoying myself with it for years to come, though I may never be very good.