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Back to the Woodshed

Winter''s on its way. Hunker down and learn to play guitar - again!

Image: TonyR. Used under Creative Commons license
I am stunned by the number of people who don’t know what woodshedding is. I don’t think I have ever not known (it may be part of what my dad used to call his “wealth of useless southern-Iowa-isms”). So for those of you who grew up in the big city with your fancy indoor plumbing, who ride in aeroplanes and play the grand piano, here is the gist: “Take that damn gittar out to the woodshed if yer jist gonna caterwaul all day!”

Most people don’t think of Iowa as a great guitar state, but we actually seem to have the highest number of great guitar players per capita of any place, with the possible exception of Nashville, so every few years I go completely insane and get a bunch of them together to put on a show (I don’t know how Muriel does it, I really don’t—I’d go stark raving mad). The music is always top notch, the variety astounding, and the day leaves everybody with a deeper appreciation of what is possible with just two hands and a guitar. Once in a while, these events act like a catalyst for some of the players, inspiring them to throw out everything they know and start over. There were two guests in particular who came away profoundly affected, spent the subsequent winters “in the woodshed” and emerged phenomenal players who consistently rock my world with their technique and fluency.

Look, winter’s coming on (for most of us), and the economy stinks so bad that gigs are ferociously hard to come by, so you may as well cloister yourself away someplace with a guitar, some Real or Fake Books, a couple guitar-oriented references on theory (for Dummies if you like), a scale book, an internet connection, a notebook and a handheld digital recorder. Here’s what you’re going to do: You’re going to pretend you know practically nothing about playing the guitar, and you’re going to use these resources to teach yourself this very winter. Forget everything you know, forget style, forget what you think of as your limitations.

Use the Real/Fake books as starting points (and they don’t have to be these specific publishers—whatever books you like are fine, so long as they have the chords and notated melody). Pick a song that you know, or something that you’d like to learn (and if you don’t know it, you can probably find at least one version of it at one of the usual online locations), but be sure to pick something you can sink your teeth into, and break it down. Start with the changes. Spend a lot of time listening to how the melody sits in the changes, how the harmonization shifts from major to minor. Listen for the tension in the harmonization, listen for resolutions that suggest chord substitution, find the common tones between the chords that help keep the song together. Then start playing with the changes a bit. Substitute a 2-chord for the 4-chord; resolve to the 6-chord instead of the tonic. See if you can hang on to some of the notes of one chord when you move to the next, even if those notes don’t “belong” in that chord—and then figure out what the hell that new chord is. Play with passing tones and passing chords and walk that bass line. Don’t skimp on this part; get to know those changes backward and forward, know what you can substitute and get a feel for how often you can use substitutions before the song starts falling apart.

Once you are comfortable with this part, record yourself a nice backing track, and be sure to give yourself some room, at least three or four choruses. Then start playing the melody over the changes until it is comfortable, and start adding variations and taking chances. If you’re not a comfortable improviser, grab that scale book I mentioned before and run scales over the changes until you have the confidence to wing it. If that means an hour, or a day, or a week, take the time.

Work through as many songs as you can this way, and by the time the snow melts and warmth returns to the land, you’ll be ready to rock in entirely new ways.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some wassail just about ready on the stove...