In The Beginning: 2

As promised in the previous lesson, here’s a bit of information about these 3 important structural issues when playing the guitar:

  • seating posture
  • left hand position
  • right hand position

The video should explain it all.

In the meantime, you can keep working on the 2-finger left hand positions we talked about in lesson one. We’ll start to enlarge on those next time!


In The Beginning…

I know that a lot of folks who subscribe to this blog are already good guitarists, but I also know that some of you are teachers, and that some of you may have friends a/or relatives who want to learn the guitar, and some of you may just be beginning yourselves. I’m starting with my simplest exercise for the left hand. It’s a “baby step”, and may be useful for students who, for one reason or another, need the least convoluted fingerings for beginning to play. (Children, old folks with some arthritis, people who just consider themselves uncoordinated…)

See the video below for that exercise, but here are some things I’m not covering today which we may talk about in future posts:

  • Posture: How you sit and hold the guitar may make playing easier or harder.
  • How your left hand holds the neck. Relaxation is paramount.
  • Positioning your right hand.

But for now, here’s a little video on how to start laying the groundwork for developing a chord vocabulary with the least difficulty.

Stay tuned for further episodes.

I could write a book about ii-V progressions…

So, here’s this week’s Sunday Morning offering:

It’s a wonderful tune from Rodgers & Hart, replete with ii-V chord sequences, so I thought I’d do a short, quick-n-dirty lesson on how they apply in this tune. In the lesson, I discuss the various ii-V sequences in the tune, but I don’t go into chord fingerings for the inversions that I play. If you already have a good repertoire of chord structures, then you’ll be good to go. If you don’t, I’d recommend my “Nuts & Bolts Approach To Chords” DVD. Just sayin’. You can order it at my web store!

Ooops, just noticed an error in the instruction video at 6:00. That should be Am7-D7 rather than Em7-A7, leading up to the Gm7-C7. Mea Culpa! Correct version at 7:40.

Anyhow, have fun with this, and stay tuned for the occasional little lesson like this!

Rolly returns…

Hi, all!  I’ve been largely otherwise engaged, but plan on returning to guitar-related topics here! For today, I thought I’d share this week’s music video with you and discuss it a bit.

As I close in on my 70th b’day, I’m looking back through the years, and this week I recalled David Rea, and his lovely tune “Maverick Child”, so I sat down and took a stab at it. I never met him, but he was one of my many inspirations. While he grew up near Kent Ohio, where I went to school, and we had mutual acquaintances, he left early and moved to Toronto, where he got work backing up Gordon Lightfoot and Ian & Sylvia, among others.

During the years that I attended the Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto, one of the greatest guitar workshops I ever witnessed was the “3 Davids” workshop in the early ’70s. David Bromberg, David Rea, and another brilliant Toronto guitarist, David Wilcox (not to be confused with the American singer/songwriter of the same name), blew everyone away with one great guitar performance after another.

Anyhow, David Rea, after working as a sideman for a few years, got a solo recording contract and toured the coffeehouse circuit for awhile. Sadly, he passed away in 2011.(You can read more about him by clicking here…) His album “Maverick Child” became a big fave among my music-hip friends. You can hear his version of the title track here:

I play a fairly straightforward flatpicked version of it here…I may come up with a more nuanced arrangement after I mess with it for awhile. This one includes the sort of mechanisms that I teach on my “Solo Flatpicking Guitar” DVD for Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop: It involves developing a series of simple techniques which allow you to extemporaneously play interesting rhythm behind your singing as well as playing solo guitar arrangements of tunes. I’m not too happy with my break here on Maverick Child, but I wanted to get it down on video, so it’s kind of a sketch.

By the way, the guitar here was built by Canadian luthier Mario Proulx, and it’s about the loudest dreadnaught I’ve ever played.

Anyhow, stay tuned and I’ll try to cover more interesting tunes and topics in the coming weeks!

First Thoughts: The Waterloo WL14X guitar from Collings

I don’t usually do reviews here, but this guitar, built by Collings Guitars, is such a unique instrument that I think it bears some discussion. The guitar is a “retro” design, meant to evoke the feel and sound of the ’30s Gibson L-00 and Kalamazoo KG-14 guitars. These were low-priced, plain Jane, depression era instruments. The ladder braced KG-14, in particular, was not what we’d call a “fine instrument”, and they were built so lightly that few have survived in any kind of decent condition. The X-braced L-00, on the other hand, was a plain instrument, but a very decent one, and they are commonly available as vintage instruments. They’re very popular with fingerstyle blues guitarists and “old time music” rhythm guitarists for their punchy, incomplicated clarity of sound. Both the KG-14 and the L-00 were lightly built and very resonant instruments; you can feel them vibrate when you play one, especially since the wood has been drying out for 80+ years. As an example, here’s a piece played on my ’34 L-00:

I received my Waterloo WL14X (X-braced) yesterday. The guitar comes in two versions: X-braced, like an L-00, and ladder braced, like a KG14. In shopping on line, I found my guitar essentially new but sold as “used”. Think of it as a “demo” model…The street price on a new one is just under $1900, which sounds like a lot to the average citizen, but is a pittance compared to many new acoustic guitars.

Once I tuned up the guitar and started to play, I was disappointed in the sound and feel. I had hoped for something like a new version of my old L-00, and the guitar at first sounded thin and kind of flimsy. After a few minute of playing, I realized I was very unhappy with the feel of the strings on it, so I put a set of my usual strings on. Immediately, the whole tonal and tactile feel of the guitar changed dramatically. Don’t ask me why. All I’d say is that, if you get a Waterloo and don’t like the sound and feel, make sure you have strings that you like. My favorites are Elixir Nano light gauge, and, at least for me, they work beautifully with this guitar. Once I’d played for a few minutes, I decided to record the A-B comparison seen below:

Now the two guitars sounded extremely similar to my ear, albeit not identical. I think the Waterloo still has a slight bit of that thinness that I associate with the Kalamazoo, but it has enough L-00 in it to compensate.

After I made the video, I continued to sit and play the Waterloo. The room was in semi darkness, and, as soon as my mind wandered a bit, I realized that I was unconsciously assuming that I was playing my old L-00. Everything about the neck felt identical. The best way I can put it is to say that this guitar has more “mojo” than any new guitar has a right to…the look of the sunburst, the neck shape, and the light weight of the instrument are all perfect. The matte finish looks like a $35 Stella from 1965, but it also looks like it will age and attain a patina. The extremely light finish serves the double purpose of recalling the guitars of yore and allowing the top to vibrate very freely. For me, throughout, the guitar is a very unusual combination of excellent workmanship (it plays like a dream, and intonates as perfectly as any Collings) and these little idiosyncrasies, but, like all Collings Guitars, it is a working man’s instrument in the important ways.

Here’s an interview with Bill Collings about why he created the guitar:

Reading between the lines, it’s clear that the Japanese interviewer is trying from every angle to get Bill to explain why he has chosen to build a guitar that is not as perfect as his Collings Guitars. What’s clear to me is that the guitar not only occupies this unique ground of being truly retro in what might be regarded as both the best and the worst ways, but it allows Collings to cut back on labor and material costs, enabling him to build a (relatively) low priced instrument that works as well as any Collings.

Here’s a little rag I wrote in honor of the Waterloo’s retro sound and feel:

This guitar is not for everyone. I think you need a light touch to play it properly, and you may need to pay special attention to setup and strings, but I have a strong feeling that it’ll be a favorite around here for certain kinds of music (blues, ragtime, swing) for the foreseeable future!


Rolly in Rehab!!! An adventure with neuroplasticity.

No, it’s not what you think…my major addiction is playing the guitar, and I don’t want to be cured. But here’s my tale:

20 years ago, I decided to concentrate on flatpicking. (I love the social aspect of it, and the sound, and the feel!) For two years, I pretty much put fingerstyle guitar aside in order to progress as a flatpicker. Eventually, I decided that it was time to get back to some fingerpicking, but I found, to my dismay, that something had gone wonky with my right hand, and the accuracy that I had taken for granted for so many years had vanished. I couldn’t quite figure it out… I’d been doing a good bit of boxing, and had taken a couple hard shots to the head. Could it be brain damage? Could it be just a function of aging? Did I have an early stage of some kind of neurological problem?

Eventually, I gave up on figuring it out, and made some major adjustments to my technique. I quit using fingerpicks, quit posting my 4th and 5th fingers on the pickguard, and struggled to reinvent my right hand. In time, I found that a lot of the problem seemed to stem from a lack of coordination between my right thumb and index finger. In order to still play with some precision, I started using my middle finger more, and just leaving my index finger out of the mix. It was a dirty fix, but a fix nonetheless.


A few months ago, my wife Janice happened on a book called “The Brain That Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge. It has become a big deal in the neurological science world, because it explores the concept of “neuroplasticity”, the idea that, contrary to previous belief, the brain is capable of reorganizing its map in order to favor activities which are most often emphasized.

One of the issues explored in the book is “learned non-use”. If something doesn’t work well, we quit using it. Then, the “use it or lose it” brain starts assigning that part of the brain to something more current. I realized this was exactly what I’d done with my index finger. By forcing myself to use the thumb-index relationship again, and actually isolating it, the brain should re-map itself to supply more brain power for this process. The “snag”, if you want to call it that, is that it may take at least 3 months of steady practice before you begin to see progress.

So, for the past 6 weeks or so, I’ve been devoting a minimum of 20 minutes every day to just playing “2 finger style”, with thumb and index, and concentrating on going back to the tunes of Merle Travis and Rev. Gary Davis, as well as Doc Watson’s fingerpicking, since all 3 played in the two finger style. So far, I seem to be making a good bit of progress, although there’s still a ways to go. I’ll check back in at the 3 month point, and beyond.

The key seems to be continuing to practice carefully and mindfully, using the damaged connections and making sure to play precisely.

So far, it’s slow going, but it’s going.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with a similar problem, and anyone who is dealing with neurological issues or who has friends dealing with neurological issues.

Till next time!

Who I Am…(or “Who Am I??”) Part I

Recently, I had a wonderful experience performing at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. Andy Braunfeld asked me to do a guitar workshop. Now, I’ve done these several times before over the past 35 years, and they usually involve 5 or 6 musicians sitting on stage hoping the other guys don’t hog too much of the time. This time, however, Andy envisioned it as just being me and one other performer, the esteemed Canadian songwriter and guitarist Bruce Cockburn, sharing the stage for an hour. It sounded like a great opportunity for me to share some of my favorite guitar pieces with a large and appreciative audience in a non-competitive, supportive atmosphere. And, sure enough, that’s exactly how it played out! Bruce was very gracious, we seemed to enjoy each others playing equally, and the audience was very positive both during and after the workshop. In short, one of those moments that musicians live for!


Bruce Cockburn and I, trading tunes at the Philly Folk Fest.

In discussing this on Facebook, I said that, as someone fairly low on the folk performer “food chain”, I was very pleased to have this opportunity. People wrote me to say, “You’re a great guitarist! You’re not low on the food chain!!” It set me to thinking, and this is what I thought: I AM low on the food chain, because the idea of a competitive measure of performers, in this sense, actually is an indicator of popularity, or “draw” in business terms.

I’m not a big draw, for several reasons:

  • I play acoustic fingerstyle guitar, not “electro-acoustic” guitar, and my specific vision of the music is not very “in your face”. This does not mean that I disapprove in any way of showier playing than my own, provided I think it’s good music. Sometimes, I envy it. Often, I respect the virtuosity of it. It just isn’t “me”, and this is especially true as I’ve aged.
  • I am not an entertainer. I am, instead, (and this is a crucial element of how I’ve come to define myself as a musician), a lifelong student of the acoustic guitar. I like to share my music, and, with nearly a half century of performing under my belt, I think I’m pretty good at it, but I’m not driven to compete in the marketplace.
  • I don’t have a great voice, and, while I love to sing, and can probably put a song across pretty well, I doubt that there are many people who would prefer me to Ray Charles or Mose Allison.
  • I only play music that I love. Like any good performer, I try to plan a set in a way that will be most engaging to my audience, but my planning will NOT include music which I do not love. Someone mentioned to me a while back that the word “amateur” means something along the lines of “lover of”: It originally reflected on the idea of someone playing for the love of the music rather than money. It didn’t mean “less talented”. I still like to think of myself as an amateur in that older sense.
  • I decided long ago that, on stage, I just want to be myself. Some people get up on stage and put on the mask. Others get up on stage and take off the mask. I’d prefer to be the latter…within reason, of course, which means that I try to just be myself on stage, not a “showman”.

Here’s the thing, though: Being low on the food chain of performers does not necessarily mean that I’m low on the talent chain, or the musicianship chain. Those judgements are for others to make, but my own wish as a guitarist has always been simply to have the respect of my peers, and, to a great degree, that has come about. Seeing someone like Bruce Cockburn smile approvingly at one of my original instrumentals, or having my friend Mike Dowling, whose musicianship I respect immensely, recommend me to a new music camp, is plenty good for me. I chose long ago to lessen, to some extent, the influence of money (or the need for money) on my music, and I’ve been lucky to make a living doing other things I enjoy, and still have time and energy to devote to music.

So, as mentioned earlier, when I ask, “Who Am I?” as a musician, the answer is simply this:

I’m a lifelong student of the acoustic guitar.

Sometimes, my ego gets out of control, and I suffer from a touch of “That Should Be ME Up There” syndrome. Then I need to remind myself of who I am, and of who I am NOT … So, that’s my story. In the next installment, I’ll answer the “Who I Am” issue in a more conventional way.

“April Is The Coolest Month” Sale in Rollyworld!

For the rest of the month of April, at, order 2 DVDs at the combo price of $40, and you’ll get a listening CD for free! Just go to , place your order, and, during the Paypal part of the transaction, write “free CD” and the title (“Sunday Morning”, “This Vagrant Heart”, “Dog Is My Co-Pilot”, or “No Need For Words”), and it’ll be included in your order, all for the price of $40 postpaid! The video below gives more info!

“Progress”? What’s that??…Rolly’s Rule, and other folly…

My Manifesto: I think that, for me, I need to define “progress” as “making my music communicate in a clearer and more emotionally successful way to more listeners.” Whatever furthers that agenda is what I want to be doing. Often, that should lead me to playing less notes rather than more.

Recently I had the good fortune to take an afternoon workshop with Howard Alden, a great jazz guitarist. Howard was affable, clear, and responsive to questions, and I went away from the workshop with some concrete things to work on. But I also left the workshop thinking about the whole issue of what “progress” means when you’ve been playing the guitar seriously for 50 years. When we’re young, we focus on technical progress, and I often describe the mania for lots of notes and speed as “a juvenile stage of development” on the guitar. If you’re serious about the instrument, you probably need to go through that stage, and yet, the word “through” may imply that you also, at some point, need to be done with that stage! At some point, one assumes that you reach a maturity that allows you to be more judicious about how “notey” your playing is…or not….


Which leads me to what I narcissistically term “Rolly’s Rule”, because I think of it as being so central to my message as a guitarist and as a teacher. This is what the rule states:

ROLLY’S RULE: The more you can make your guitar, in some way, recall the sound and emotional content of the human voice, the more your listeners will be able to connect with your music.

A pretty simple concept, but, of course, there are exceptions. The most notable one is this: Sometimes, it’s not about the emotion (as in “wistfulness”, “affection”, “joy”, “sadness”, “elation”…). Sometimes, it’s just about The Energy; the toe-tapping, physically engaging musical ride that makes you want to dance or stamp your feet. This aspect is part of most genres of music, and certainly a large part of both Gypsy jazz and bluegrass.

Even if you’re playing a tune in which The Energy is paramount, though, musical maturity should still be enriching the music: phrasing, note choices, use of dynamics (loud/soft), and details of articulation (bends, vibrato, hammers, slides, etc.) all give music more life, even at warp speed.

Then there are issues of note choice; it’s amazing, given that there are only twelve tones in the Western musical paradigm, that there are so many ways of putting them together…

Here’s a calculation done by the great jazz maestro George Van Eps in order to give an idea of just how many ways we’re talking about. Click on the thumbnail to read the text. (You may have to click on the file again to enlarge it, too…)


van-eps-statsSo, the question arises; if you’re following “Rolly’s Rule”, how many scales and arpeggios and variations do you need to practice in order to maximize your ability to connect with listeners? And, does learning more and more combinations of combining notes always mean that you’re making “progress”? If we assume that the whole idea of “making progress” is unquestionably the goal in attaining musicianship, and we define “progress” as learning more stuff, playing faster, having more note combinations, is that always useful? More to the point, how would our conversational speech sound if we applied the same principles to verbal communication? Have you ever wondered about the motivation of a speaker who continually uses big words when simpler language would work better?

The Answers:

Okay, here’s what I think, noting that these answers are just for me. You need to find your own answers…

  1. I think that it makes sense to make sure that you’ve done all you can to achieve the best possible technique and speed that your potential allows. Then go on a maintenance program, so as not to lose ground.
  2. I think that, with most great players, their style is fairly set at an early age. From then on, it’s a matter of how much more development they have within the confines of their musical personality. That development may be for the better, may be for the worse (some players do their best work early on…), or they may just remain where they are. (If Bill Evans never went beyond the level he was at on “Portrait in Jazz”, or Miles Davis on “Kind of Blue”, would that have been such a terrible thing?)
  3. I think that, for me, I continue to try and add to the number of ways I can put notes together, but only insomuch as it doesn’t stray too far from “Rolly’s Rule”. There are great players for whom I have great admiration, but I don’t want to be them. Often, their music only has emotional content for other musicians, and, while I hope to have the respect of my peers, I also want my music to reach the “average listener”. I actually don’t always like the sound of jazz that’s “way out there”, even if I appreciate the skill involved, so I don’t feel obliged to try and master it.
  4. I think that, for me, I need to define “progress” as “making my music communicate in a clearer and more emotionally successful way to more listeners.” Whatever furthers that agenda is what I want to be doing. Often, that should lead me to playing less notes rather than more.

The things I want to improve on the most:

  1. Groove: having better control of time, and making rhythms more viscerally moving to listeners.
  2. Access: Rather than trying to learn more and more combinations, I’d like to have better immediate access to the combinations I already know and understand. Sometimes, after playing a solo, I feel like the guy who, after an argument, walks away saying, “What I should have said was_____…why can’t I ever think of that in the moment??”
  3. Awareness: I want to be more aware of which aspects and techniques in my music are communicating most effectively, and, when playing with others, be more aware of what they’re playing, and of how we’re interacting.

When I show great improvement at those 3 things, then I’ll want to show even greater improvement at those 3 things…



When Rolly Met The Rev. Gary Davis

Recently, I re-posted an article I wrote a decade ago about my meeting and brief time with the Rev. Gary Davis, which happened in the winter of ’69-70. This was a landmark moment in my life as a guitarist. As you may read below, I was able to glean the feel and fingerings of more than a few of the Reverend’s fantastic guitar arrangements during the two hours he spent showing me stuff. I was already fairly competent, so it was the perfect moment for me to absorb a lot of music in a short period of time. Equally importantly, the meeting triggered a long study of the Reverend’s style, supported by meetings with other RGD students, including Andy Cohen, Alan Mattes, Tom Hartman, Nick Katzman, Ernie Hawkins, and others; folks who were glad to trade their takes on the Rev’s pieces for my own. Then there were Stefan Grossman’s transcriptions, and my own wearing-out of the available LPs. But mostly there was the memory of those hands, and that sound.
If you’ve never seen or heard the Reverend, here’s a little sample:

And a bit of the style that I absorbed from him over the years, played on a Gibson J200, for that signature RGD sound.

Here’s the article I wrote:

In the winter of 1969-70, I was co-chairing the Kent State Folk Festival in Kent Ohio. We ended up booking Rev. Gary Davis, largely because Folklore Productions, which handled many of the good folk acts at that time, had no one else available, and because I’d heard a recording of “12 gates to the city” and was impressed. Manny Greenhill warned us not to give the Reverend any booze. When my friend Don Hernstrom and I arrived to meet the plane, the Reverend was nowhere to be seen. We finally asked a stewardess if anyone was still on the plane. She gave us a withering look and sent us back, where we found the Reverend (who was accompanied by his 13 year old grand-daughter) asleep in his seat with an empty fifth of whiskey portruding from his pocket. We woke him up and got underway. He was affable enough, but kept saying, “I shoulda brought my gun…” with references to what he’d do if he didn’t get paid the agreed-upon amount.

(Years later I read James Taylor’s account of his first gig. He’d opened for the Reverend at a club on Martha’s Vineyard and, when the owner refused to pay Davis and Taylor the amount agreed upon, Davis, [he was BLIND, remember], had indeed pulled a revolver and waved it around, maybe even shot once or twice, until the payment was received.)

Anyhow, the Reverend made it clear, in terms that echoed Muhammad Ali, that he was “the greatest”, and no one had ever been better. That evening, as we waited backstage for his performance, and he listened to several student acts performing folk, blues, and singer/songwriter stuff, he seemed a bit more despondent. The quality of the acts was technically pretty good, and the Reverend said to me something to the effect of “I USED to be the greatest, but I am not now what I once have been…”

Well, I led him onto stage for the final set of the night, not knowing quite what to expect. He was playing his Bozo 12 string. I think he’d quit using the six because his coordination was going a bit and he felt the 12 sounded fuller. He started out with “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning”. He looked like he might totter over at any second, but the voice and the guitar were big and strong, and the audience was transfixed. This was a bunch of white-bread college kids who thought “folk music” was Judy Collins and “blues” was Cream.
Davis went on with one amazing rendition after another, filled with good humor and spirit. At the end of his set, these amazed college kids gave him SEVEN encores, and wouldn’t let him off the stage. My eyes brim up a bit as I write this.

The next morning, we arrived at the Reverend’s lodgings (campus guest housing) early and hung out with him until his afternoon workshop. Every time a young woman (the place was crawling with pretty coeds) would enter the room, the Reverend would say, “Ya know….the doctor says…….if I don’t get a purty girl to kiss me every day……I’m gonna DIE!!” Damned if it didn’t work every time! He was having a great old time, collecting kisses from one young sweetie after another.

I had a Gibson “country western” model at this time, and I played a bit for him (at his request). He kindly said, “You’ll be alright…you just keep on”. He took the guitar from me, brought it up to about an inch away from his face, and said, “Hmmmmm….mahogany!” I guess he had that little bit of sight. Then we went off to his 2 hour workshop, where he sat in the student union basement and played for 3 hours straight. I was just amazed by his hands, and the music that came out of his guitar. There was counterpoint and melody and bass movement, but his left hand seemed always to be holding a chord. It totally transformed my vision of how the left hand should operate. To this day, that weekend probably did more for my guitar playing development than any other 48 hours in my 39 years of intensive guitar playing.

At the end of the afternoon, we had two hours to kill till we left for the airport. Reverend Davis had already been playing guitar all day long, but he turned toward me and asked, “Well, what do you want to learn?” I was dumbfounded by his generosity, but recovered quickly, and started naming tunes: Buck Dance, Slow Drag, Talk on The Corner, 12 Sticks,….he went through them all pretty patiently. I didn’t ask questions because I figured he probably was just a great “ear” player, but when I had trouble following him on the downward
chord sequence in Slow Drag, he finally, exasperated, said “C, Bb6, F with an A in the bass, and Ab!”…so much for my stereotypes about old illiterate blues guys…

After two hours of this, we took the Reverend to the airport and sent him off to New York. I think it was about a year later that he passed away. I envy those guys who got to study with him for years in New York, but I also value the brief time I spent with him, and I worked hard to make the most of it for a long time afterward.

I saw a lot of the old blues guys perform: Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bukka White, Fred McDowell, Furry Lewis, Roosevelt Sykes, and others. None came close to Gary Davis, in my opinion. And none was more beloved. He was a man of great spirit, and he WAS the greatest.

Happy Holidays to you all!