a guitarist's occasional blog
Monday night I taught my Group Guitar II students to play the song "I'm Yours" by Jason Mraz. The song is in the Key of B which isn't an easy key to play on the guitar. So I taught the song in G (easier to sing for most men!) and kept it simple. If you want to play in B, just slap a capo on the 4th fret.
I also taught the class how to play the opening lead guitar riff in both B and G, figuring they would want to play along with the recording. Then I showed them how to noodle on a major scale shape like the attached pdf. file. This is what I spent half my teenage years doing—noodling along with my favorite records using these shapes!
Your second finger fretting the sixth string begins the pattern, and that finger plays the note that names the scale. Start at the third fret (second position) and you are playing in G. Starting on the seventh fret (sixth position) you are playing in B. If you learn this pattern and the names of the notes all along your sixth string, you can noodle musically in any key!
Hint: Assign each finger to fret. You should not need to shift your hand to play these scales. In G you have:
Use the B Major scale and noodle along with this great Jason Mraz pop tune on Youtube. It's fun! I hope the 33,000 people who clicked "thumbs down" on his video are feeling better now.
Guitar Acquisition Syndrome (GAS) is a problem for some guitarists, including myself. However, I have come to think of Guitar Accumulation Syndrome (GAS Type 2) as the larger problem. Think of the crazy cat lady with an uncontrolled population of pets who have overrun her home; now substitute guitars for cats. I know these people! So I've been doing my part to manage my GAS (Type 2) this past week by selling off my Paul Hathway Octave Mandolin, Gibson LP Special, and Goodtime Classic Banjo. In fact, I currently have three other instruments for sale, and I am considering listing another guitar. GAS (Type 2) is in remission*.
Yesterday I took delivery of a wonderful new Martin guitar. It's a variation on the iconic Martin D-18 that is apparently meant for the European marketplace in light of trade restrictions on endangered tonewoods like mahogany and rosewood.
My new guitar is a Martin DST Special Edition that I ordered brand new from Ted at L.A. Guitar Sales. I have wanted a Martin D-18 for a long time. (Actually, I have owned two of them in the past!) But when it can time to purchase a new guitar for teaching and children's music performances, I did the right thing and saved myself a little bit of money by choosing the new DST over the D-18. (If you aren't experienced buying new guitars, know that you should never pay full list price. Also, know that certain dealers will agree to sell you an instrument below the MAP that you see listed on internet sites.)
After years of buying and selling used instruments, the most striking thing for me as I look at this guitar is the light color of the new spruce top. As spruce ages it turns darker and sometimes even takes on an orange hue. But right now my new guitar is very white. It's going to be fun watching it age and change color.
This instrument checks off the most important boxes for me in terms of emulating the iconic D-18. It has scalloped, forward shifted bracing, a Sitka top, a 1 3/4" nut width, and ebony fretboard and bridge. These are most of the essential elements (to me) of the D-18 that Martin has been selling since 2012.
Some primary differences include a simplified neck joint, sapele as a substitute for mahogany, and the light satin finish. I don't know anyone who can hear these details in a blind test, but they do add up to a bit of a difference from the D-18. Other differences are mostly in the visual details. I'm not crazy about the gold tuners or the red "eyes" on the bridge pins, but these are small things that are easy and inexpensive to change. (My wife and kids like these details.) There is no rosewood or mahogany to be found anywhere on the instrument.
I thought the guitar was going to come with a soft case, but mine was delivered with a basic flat-top Martin hardshell case. That didn't matter to me because I already have a padded gig bag for hauling my guitar and teaching materials around town.
How does it sound?
Well, it has a Sitka top and scalloped, forward-shifted bracing, and it is made from Martin's basic dreadnought recipe. To my ears, it sounds like a D-18. It's a new guitar, and it will change as it gets played and ages. Some people say the sapele will give it a slightly brighter tone than a mahogany guitar. Personally, I don't hear it. But I have no horse in that race because I already like what I'm hearing. I've put it through the paces with flatpicked fiddle tunes, fingerstyle blues, heavy strumming, and even some classical guitar etudes. The D-18 has a reputation as a "Swiss Army Knife" guitar, and this DST is just that.
Also, this is a very loud instrument. It is louder than the two straight-braced D-18's I have owned in the past. It's possible the lack of a gloss finish contributes to its volume; I can't be sure. Compared to my (2011) Martin D-21 Special, I'd say the DST has less bass power and more emphasis on treble. The D-21 Special is very lush sounding with a dark, growling character, and the rosewood back of the guitar really rumbles against your body as you play. The DST seems more articulate but also has solid, clear bass response. None of that should surprise anyone who has played a number of Martin dreadnoughts.
Which guitar should you buy? A DST or a D-18?
If you have your heart set on the classic Martin guitar, I honestly think you should spend the extra money and buy a D-18. It is maybe the most iconic acoustic guitar in American music, and the price difference (if you know how to shop) isn't enormous. But if you need to save some cash, or if you just like to be a little bit different, I think the DST represents a worthy musical alternative. In my case, I'm trying to control my own GAS (Type 2), and this seemed like a wise choice. I'm happy with it, and I'm grateful to be able to play such nice guitars.
(*OK. I admit it. I'm now shopping for a classical guitar.)
I'm a bit of a Craigslist watcher. (OK. That's an understatement. I'm a Craigslist addict. I suffer from a bad case of G.A.S., otherwise known as Guitar Acquisition Syndrome.)
This guitar you see to the right is a 1960's Fender Regal Classic. It's nothing special—or at least it wasn't until it survived to old age—and it isn't necessarily a desirable instrument by most standards. But it was for sale on the Craigslist classifieds, and I'm kind of a sucker for old guitars. I traded some other guitar gear for it. And I am happy.
I'm not an expert on the history of it all, but at some point during the 1960's Fender Sales began selling rebranded guitars that had been made by Harmony in Chicago. When I was a kid in the 1980's, one of my very first guitars was a terrible imported, plywood Harmony guitar that we probably purchased at Service Merchandise or Montgomery Ward. It was a wreck of a box, and it's far too generous to even refer to it as a musical instrument. However, back in the Sixties, Harmony made their instruments here in the USA. And while they weren't really competing with Martin, Gibson, or Guild for customers, their modestly priced student guitars were of a quality that at least deserved the title musical instrument.
From what I can gather searching through the mess of the internet, this Fender Classic is really a rebranded Harmony H173. It's a student guitar. But unlike during the Eightees, the child of the Sixties was able to get an affordable Harmony acoustic guitar made of all solid woods—spruce top, birch body, and poplar neck—with great tuning machines and enough attention to quality that the damn thing could make music. Real music!
My new, old guitar—also a child of the Sixties—shows some signs of age. (Hey, so do I and I wasn't even born until 1970. Cut us some slack!) There is a long crack on the top with an effective but somewhat crude repair. A guitar like this probably began with a perfectly flat neck, but this one has a slight amount of relief. And there are the unavoidable bumps and bruises that come with age.
However, someone did some work to keep this one going. The tuners look like original tuners with bell buttons. They are very clean and function perfectly. The action over the first eight frets or so is lower than most traditional classical guitars, and up to the body it is still within range of what can be expected for a nylon string guitar—though a bit high if all you know is steel string. There is a slight dip of the fretboard once you get to the body. There is also some saddle left at the bridge, which is good. The guitar plays well and in tune (no kidding!) all up and down the neck, and the neck joint seems to be rock solid. In other words, this is not a project. It's a playable guitar in need of no work or repair.
The old spruce top is impressive with straight, even grain and nice silking. It isn't so different from the tops of my other more expensive guitars, and I'm guessing it is Sitka. Old wood is often good wood. I suppose good wood used to be easier to get.
This isn't a true classical guitar. This is a folk guitar probably best used to accompany singing. It responds to a light touch, and I am enjoying fingerpicking folk songs and tunes like Steve Goodman's "The City of New Orleans" on it. Admittedly, the guitar needs to be played lightly. It doesn't do well with a heavy right hand attack, especially with the light tension strings it has on it. You want to bash out Neil Young tunes? Wrong guitar. Lightly pick a John Denver tune or two? Good choice. Need a character guitar for your hip recording studio? Excellent choice!
This begs the question, "What are you going to do with this guitar, Chuck?"
Well, I will eventually sell it or gift it. But first I'm going to enjoy it.
I figure this old guitar has some stories in it. It has its history. And I'm going to go looking for the song in this box. I will hold on to it until I find the song in it. Then I'll pass it along to a new owner and wish it well.
And then I'll go looking for another modest Craigslist treasure to play. Because I have incurable G.A.S., apparently.
This fellow plays very nicely in a Jerry Reed style, and that seems to be what a lot of folks want these old guitars to do for them. It doesn't sound all that different from the one I've got here. Enjoy!
The world lost Tom Petty this week.
The first memory I have of listening to the radio—really listening as if it was the music was the only thing in the world—was as a child at my grandparents' house in Blue Island, Illinois. I was probably nine years old. I can't remember why, but I was down in their basement playing on the cool tile floor. Maybe it was a summer heat wave, and that would have been the most tolerable place to be in the house. Someone had left me a transistor radio tuned to a popular radio station, probably Chicago's FM rock giant WLS.
I remember four songs from that day. It's weird how we can remember some of these otherwise mundane childhood moments in such vivid detail. Those songs were "The Logical Song" by Supertramp, "Rich Girl" by Hall & Oates, "Stuck in the Middle with You" by Stealers Wheel, and "Don't Do Me Like That" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. All four of those songs have remained part of the soundtrack of my life.
I admit that I haven't given much thought to Tom Petty lately. He was on the radio from the moment I began listening, and he never left me. I rarely changed the station on his music, but I only own three of his albums. I never performed his songs, though I made an effort last year to learn all the guitar parts on the "Refugee" record. I never saw him in concert, though I had considered traveling up to Seattle's Safeco Field to see him play.
Sadly, I just took Tom Petty for granted. He was always there. And now he is gone. It's hard to imagine he won't be here making music and records anymore.
He was a genius at writing a simple pop hit that had hidden layers buried in it to discovered only after you had sung the damn song a thousand times. And we all sang a lot of his songs a thousand times.
I've always appreciated his sometimes surprising political activism, whether it was protesting nuclear weapons or standing up for transgender rights. His admission that he had been wrong to use the Confederate Flag as a marketing tool, and his continued willingness to discuss the need to pull the damn thing down? People don't often admit their mistakes in such a humble way.
Like his contemporary Jackson Brown, Tom Petty evolved from rock star to authentic, interesting Americana act—a rare trick for the stars of his generation. He never became a dull oldies act and remained relevant to the end. While his later songs lacked the defiance of his younger days, his work became more probing and his narratives stronger. Sadly, Tom Petty probably left this world with some of his best work still in him.
On Monday night I taught my guitar class at Multnomah Arts Center how to play "I Won't Back Down". We sang together. It felt good. The best way I can think to mourn, remember, and celebrate a songwriter is to play and sing their songs.
Tom Petty was above all a great songwriter. We will keep those songs alive.
"Far away from your trouble and worry, you belong somewhere you feel free." - Tom Petty from "Wildflowers"
Practicing scales isn't necessary for everyone. If your only ambition is campfire strumming, you can probably stick to learning the songs you want to sing. There is no shame in only strumming "cowboy" chords. We all have our priorities in life.
However, for students who wish to improvise, pick fiddle tunes, or play guitar solos up the neck, there is no substitute for learning scales. I've attached a free guitar lesson pdf. here with four C major scales for guitar that beginning students and guitar teachers might find useful.
Enjoy! Practice some scales, but make sure to play some music as well!
I recently taught Gene Vincent's classic "Be-Bop-A-Lula" to a beginning group guitar class. It's a great song for beginners with three chords: E, A, and B7.
I wanted to give my students a little taste of taking guitars solos. So I wrote a simple guitar solo using some common blues and rock & roll phrases over a basic 12-bar blues chord progression — the same progression used on "Be-Bop-A-Lula".
A lot of people try to begin soloing by wandering around a basic blues scale shape. I tend to think that sort of things leads to playing things that aren't very musical. I once saw an interview with Eric Clapton where he talked about constructing his solos as statements by stringing together musical phrases in a meaningful way.
Learning a the notes of a scale is like learning the letters of the alphabet. You have to organize the notes into musical words or phrases before you can start playing real, meaningful music.
The sample guitar solo I wrote for this lesson can be played as it is written. But each measure really represents a useful musical word or phrase that can be used over and over in other settings. Think about the first measure here; it's a musical phrase that can be used just about anywhere over a E or E7 chord when you are playing the blues or blues-influenced rock and country music. So think of each measure in this exercise as a word or phrase you can add to your musical vocabulary. As your vocabulary grows, your soloing will become more and more interesting.
Do learn to play this solo exactly as written. But then go back and switch measures 1-2 with measures 3-4. The solo works just as well. Or for something maybe a bit more surprising, simply play any one of the first four measures for the entire first four measures of E. It works! (Some of these phrases are reminiscent of Stevie Ray Vaughan's intro to "Pride and Joy".)
You can continue learning new musical words and phrases from TABS you find. But listen to players like Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, or Robert Cray. Steal their licks by listening. The little mistakes you make copying their playing will give your playing its own voice. That's what every one of those players did. So we can do the same thing!
My Vintage 47 is a Valco-style 12 watt tube amplifier that is built in California by David Barnes. This amp is an amazing blues and jazz amplifier with a classic sound. I picked this up right around the same time I traded out a beautiful Martin OM-21 guitar for a Gibson ES-335. I'm practicing with that combo these days in hopes of becoming a legit jazz cat in my later years — which seem to be just around the corner!
Chuck Cheesman writes hopeful, loving, and sometimes funny songs for people of all ages.
All materials ©℗ Chuck Cheesman
Banner photo by Gina Dazzo