In The Beginning: 6

In our sixth lesson, I’m teaching some left hand hammer-ons and pull-offs, and how they apply to some simple right hand technique, both for flatpicking and fingerpicking. What I show here is very fundamental, but it leads toward more complex rhythms. Here’s the video:

If you’re working with a flatpick, you should also watch this video, a trailer for my “solo flatpicking DVD from Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, which shows very fundamental but important pick technique:

Okay, have fun, and stay tuned!

In The Beginning: 5

In this lesson, we practice our 6 chords in 2-chord pairs, becoming fluent with every possible pairing:

Pairing C with: F, G, Am, Dm, Em.

Pairing F with G, Am, Dm, Em.

Pairing G with Am, Dm, Em.

Pairing Am with Dm, Em.

Pairing Dm with Em.

Get comfortable with each of this, as shown in the video. Then just sit around and randomly go from chord to chord. These 6 chords are all derived from the C major scale, and therefore they sound good together. See if you can figure out which chords sound like “home base” (good “ending” chords) as you’re playing through them!

In The Beginning: 4

In this lesson, we discuss 3 basic minor chords: Am, Em, and Dm. In addition, once you can play Am, you can move it over one string towards the bass side of the neck and it becomes Emajor.


Am = 002210

Em = 022000

Dm = X00231

Emajor = 022100

All is explained on the video:


In The Beginning: 3

In this lesson, we’ll refer back to one of the two “2-finger shapes” we discussed in lesson one. Now we’ll turn them into complete triads (3 note chords). A triad is the most basic kind of chord, but that doesn’t mean we only play 3 strings on the guitar. For example, a C chord has the notes C, E, & G. The basic C chord in the video below can be played on 5 strings, because some of the notes are repeated…from bass to treble strings, starting with the fifth string, the notes would be C, E, G, C, E.

A simple way of writing this chord in text would be X32010. The “X” denotes a string we won’t play, and the numbers are fret numbers. “0” is an open string that gets played. If this is gobbledygook to you right now, don’t worry. Just learn the fingerings from the video, repeat them again and again, and we’ll sort stuff out later. Here’s the video. Have fun!

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!