Wednesday, September 28, 2011

So what's happened to guitar since 2001 and why is it on the way back?

The guitar enjoyed a boom for a long time but in recent years guitar as we know has slipped a little but due to new circumstances is set to rise again. The guitar enjoyed uninterrupted growth in popularity until 2001 because there was no real competition. Its one big advantage was convenience but then something happened. Technology caught up.

The computer came along

Desktops, laptops, iPads, iPhones etc are now offering convenient musical options. In a sense it was the piano/keyboard's revenge. The new technology made it possible to play keyboard, write songs and do full band arrangements without even owning a musical instrument. Computer technology is in actual fact the most versatile musical instrument available today and has recently become the most convenient one. It stays in tune, it remembers your songs, it has unlimited range of sounds and possibilities and its easy to learn and it always sounds great. It has surpassed the guitar for convenience, sound quality and it seems price. I will point out that I am in no way suggesting a computer can replace the feel of a real guitarist playing a real guitar but you need to spend a lot more to get the sound quality.

Affordable tools

Digital music programs have also became affordable and even free in some case and are of a high enough quality that anyone with a basic music knowledge can produce quality recordings.  With computer technology making music with a keyboard is easy whereas plugging in, setting up and tuning your guitar takes more effort. It would be easy to assume that people play guitar because its popular. While this is indeed true the guitar basically became popular because it was convenient. Some popularity was lost because technology became more convenient but the reason guitar is set to rise again is because guitar technology has now arrived.

So what about the future?

Guitar is back. Guitar took a dip but the quality of software like Guitar Rig 5 is making it possible to skip the amp and mic process altogether. Go back to the 60's and solid body electric guitars were heavy. Add your Marshall stacks effects racks and you were suddenly carting around about the equivalent of an upright piano. Guitarists with back, neck and shoulder injuries were becoming common place. The guitar itself was still convenient but rock guitar especially required some heavy lifting. Computer technology for keyboards (MIDI) has been developing for decades but guitar was mostly left out of the picture. In the 60's and 70's when MIDI was developing guitar players really had no interest in plugging their guitars into anything other than an amp. This is in turn meant developers tended to leave guitar players alone.

The guitar amp may be a thing of the past soon

By 2001 guitar players began disappearing from the pop charts. Guitarists like everyone else were starting to realise that computer technology had stepped up its game. Over the past decade we have seen dramatic improvements in guitar amp modeling technology and now many of the skeptics are beginning to change their mind. I think 2011 is the turning point because guitarists are back in the game. They can now plug in and get studio quality sounds (something keyboard players have had for many years now). This makes it very convenient. Recording decent guitar tracks does not required a million dollar studio with state of art equipment. This means guitar players will be recording more music and in turn more people will want to play guitar. I think guitar players using amp stacks will always be around but their glory days are probably behind them. Marshall by the way on Ngram has been dropping in popularity since 1980.

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Sunday, September 25, 2011

The rise and fall (and rise again) of guitar

I was recently checking out the popular songs on iTune and noticed that most songs were void of any obvious guitar. Almost all of the tracks were based on beats with bass, synths, piano and vocals. A few tracks had acoustic guitars being strummed in the back ground or a funky rhythm guitar like Maroon 5's latest song but guitar was rarely noticeable.  I decided to do some research to find out if guitar was losing popularity rather than just making a conclusion based on the iTunes top 100.

The Google Labs answer

Google are on a mission to scan every book ever written into digital format. To date they have over 5 billion words scanned. Having all these words connected to dates makes for some pretty serious data. I discovered that some clever minds at Google labs have created a program called Ngram which is now available to anyone to run the frequency of a word over time. In effect this gives a very accurate picture of how popular a word was at a given time in history.  This in turn can tell us how popular something has been over time. Perfect! Now I was able to enter some keywords and find out how popular guitar has been over the last 100 years or so. I initially typed the word guitar and you can see it really started to take off in the 60's but prior to that was probably about as popular as any other musical instrument. Piano by contrast peaked in the 1940's and dropped quite dramatically by the early 60's. Guitar had obviously taken over. Guitar's rise to the top was probably a combination of factors but my guess is The Beatles had something to do with it.

Ngram searches

BTW - I have included a few extra Ngram searches. 'Guitar teacher' as you can see has not seen a decline. Guitar teacher is peaking and may still be rising. Rock guitar peaked in 2001 and dropped sharply after that. Jimi Hendrix peaked in about 1970 almost disappeared around 1980, rose to a new high in 2000 and has dropped away sharply ever since. Interesting!

Guitar's decline in popularity

Guitar reached its peak in about 2001 and has declined in popularity (although only slightly) ever since. One might conclude that guitar is on the way out but I beg to differ. I believe guitar is about to boom again as I will explain. From what I understand guitar became popular in the 60's because of popular music but the question is why did popular musicians choose guitar? Pop music of the 50's and 60's was based on blues and blues was mostly played by African Americans who simply couldn't afford to buy a piano. Guitar no doubt came up through Mexico. Blues had been around for sometime but when electric guitars came on the scene the rock n roll revolution began. Even so what really made the guitar popular when you stand back was its convenience and price tag. No other instrument was able to give singers the backing they needed at the low price and pure convenience of the guitar. Pianos were expensive and  inconvenient. Almost all other instruments were ineffective when it came to backing up singer. Guitar's convenience won out.

So what's happened since 2001 and why will the guitar rise again? I am going to answer these questions in my next blog so stay tuned.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

How sleep effects your guitar learning

Musicians have long been thought of as night owls. We imagine jazz musicians playing in New York style basements and rock musicians playing pubs till the early hours.  Almost all live work will be in a night time venue. A musician looking for a career in music with no late nights is probably a teacher. Late nights are not really a problem providing you are not trying to live a double life. In other words combining the musician hours with a 9 to 5 job. I have met far too many guitarists who live such lives including myself at times but the research shows that if you are serious about improving your guitar playing cutting back on sleep is not a good option.

Late night guitar practice

Sleep deprivation and it's effects is described in detail on the Wikipedia page if you are interested but what I am concerned about is how it effects learning guitar. It's easy to fall in the habit of practicing late at night. At first your practice sessions are short so it's no big deal but as you get more in to practicing the nights get later but unfortunately your school or work still begins at the same time the next morning. As a result you cut back on sleep. In the day you feel drowsy but come the evening you get your second wind and kick on in to the early hours. You may feel okay generally but the question is how is your lack of sleep effecting your brain's ability to learn.

Less than 7 hours and performance begins to drop

In recent years thanks to Functional MRI scanning researchers have been able to observe how well our brain learns in all sorts of situations. Learning on less than the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep shows a rapid decline in the brains ability to learn. If for example you sleep only 6 hours a night you can expect an obvious drop in performance. You may not even notice it but your mind will drift sooner.

3 Steps to learning

There is basically a 3 step process to learning new material. 1. Acquisition 2. Consolidation 3. Recall. Each step is vital and each is affected by how much sleep you have had. A lack of sleep will cause a decline in your brains ability to function during all three step. If we lack sleep while trying learn new material (acquisition) our brain is unable to focus. To give you an idea here is a quote from a sleep study report I read recently - 'The arithmetic task led to significantly decreased activation in the bilateral prefrontal cortex and parietal lobes.' When we are low on actual sleep our brains seems to be asleep on the job.

Consolidation and recall

Consolidating happens during sleep. Researchers know that sleep is a critical time for processing what we have learned throughout our waking hours. Our brain seems to sort, organize and perhaps even delete the new information. The exact process is still unclear but what is certain is that a lack of sleep will affect the consolidation stage. Lastly recall as it suggests is your ability to access the information in your brain. We all know what it feels like late at night when we are tired and are trying to remember something we had to do.

Try practicing in the morning - You may be surprised

If you are learning guitar it is best to do less practice at a time when you are most alert. It's fine to jam and play around late into the evening but if you want to get the most out of your practice for the least amount of time invested (most bang for your buck) aim for mornings or at least a time when you are fresh and alert. The following article may be helpful if you want to know more. Sleep, Learning and Memory.

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Guitar for a lifetime

Whever a new student enrolls for lessons my first question is; "How long do you intend to play guitar for?" Many look at me with a half smile as if I am asking a trick question and hesitantly reply with "Forever I guess". The reason I ask this question is not so much for my information because almost everyone who takes up guitar does so with the idea of playing for the rest of their life but I just want to make a point as I will explain below.

Lifelong commitment

Everyday I speak to people who 'want' to learn guitar. Some have decided they are no longer going to ponder the idea and instead take action. When adults enroll to learn guitar they will often say how they wanted to learn when they were younger but kept putting it off for one reason or another. Guitar really is a lifelong love affair and anything less is probably a waste of time.  I have been playing guitar for almost 30 years and apart from the first few years when it seemed all too hard I have never considered stopping even when it felt like I had no time for practice. There were times due to injury where I could not play for one reason or another but I was certainly thinking about it.

Guitar forever

So my point in the question from above is this: When students learn guitar the early years are difficult and most feel a growing impatience when their progress is slow. My question "How long do you intend to play guitar for?" allows me to point out that 2 years of dedication and consistent practice is a small price to pay for a lifetime of guitar bliss. The learning of course doesn't stop after 2 years but I have found that the first few years are the make or break. As a rough estimate I would say those who get to the 2 year mark have about a 90% chance of sticking to guitar for life compared to those in their first 6 months who have less than a 50% chance. (Please note that a good teacher/coach can make a difference). My question helps to put this into perspective and helps to change their focus. Don't expect too much too soon is my message especially if you have signed up for life.

Lifelong means from now

If you desire to play guitar your desire will most likely be with you for life whether you act on it or not. My advice is not to make excuses as to why you don't have the time because you will never have the time. You need to make time. Still I am yet to meet someone who really doesn't have the time. Its about priorities. If playing guitar is in your top 5 then you need start learning today. Not tomorrow or next week or after your second cousin's wife's 30th birthday party but NOW! Turn off the TV or computer, leave work 30 minutes early, forget the hour lunch break, get up a little earlier. Do whatever it takes because tomorrow there will be another excuse.

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Sunday, September 18, 2011

How do you become conscientious?

Continued from the last blog I will attempt to answer the above question.

Just to recap in the first blog we spoke about the research that showed conscientious people tend to live longer. To read the first blog please visit the G4 GUITAR website and scroll down to the blog. 

This is a tricky question because their is no simple answer and I won't pretend to be any kind of expert. I will simply answer the question from the perspective of a guitar teacher. My interest as is likely yours is to know how this applies to learning guitar. The majority of conscientious people in my opinion are just big kids. They turned their childhood hobbies into lifelong pursuits or even better careers. In the case of guitar most people who play and learn guitar either started as a child or first became interested as a child. If you are the exception it is likely your interest in music did indeed occur during your childhood.

Given the choice, how would you spend your time?

As a kid I loved listening to music and experimenting with sounds. I began writing songs as a young teen almost from the moment I learnt my first guitar chord. I didn't do it for any other reason than I enjoyed the creative process. I could spend hours at a time working and experimenting with music. I think the key to being conscientious is to go back to what it is that given the opportunity you would spend the majority of your time doing. It does of course need to be something of a positive nature. I therefore would rule out TV watching, video games and hanging out at cafes for extended periods. Revisit your childhood and look at what you enjoyed. How did you spend your free time? Failing that start experimenting. E.g. Pick up a guitar and sign up for some lessons and see what happens.

Not all stress is bad

Now before we go any further it is important to point out that just because you are conscientious about something it doesn't mean you will avoid stress. According to the study stress is very much misunderstood and in itself is not a problem. In fact stress usually goes hand in hand with a life of purpose. Those who have purpose are rarely going to walk a smooth path without resistance. If you know where you are heading there will be brick walls and hurdles along the way. Straight lines are somewhat rare in the pursuit of one's goal. For a better understanding read the book 'The Drunkard's Walk'. Now in regards to the guitarist the biggest complaint from students is there is never enough hours in the day and we have a mountain of responsibility and somehow we expect ourselves to fit in 30+ minutes  a day of guitar. This can become stressful especially if the bills start to mount. For those who are clear that life without guitar is no life at all facing such situations is just part of the challenge and not a reason to throw in the towel. They simply eliminate those less important priorities like TV, Internet etc. There is also the stress of practice itself. This takes concentration and self discipline along with constant pep talks with yourself to stay motivated especially during those times when progress feels slow.

The social factor

The longevity study also points out the importance of positive social connections. A support group if you like. When it comes to guitar it is likely that you will come into contact with other musicians or lovers of music. One study conducted some years ago in Europe found that school aged children involved in music did better overall at school and they believe it was because they were more socially active through their participation in the school band. Social connections can go either way. That is they can be healthy or unhealthy. If you are socially connected to a group of people who indulge too much in unhealthy activities it is likely you will too but if you are connected to an active group of musicians it will almost always be a positive experience. Choosing your social activities and therefore your social groups will improve your odds of a long healthy life according to the study. In the case of guitar I would suggest starting with a teacher because they will usually be able to connect you up with other like minded music students in your area.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Why conscientiousness equals a long life (of guitar)

In a longevity study it was concluded that conscientiousness was perhaps the strongest predictor of a long healthy life. The 80 year study carried out in the US (which you can read about in the book 'The Longevity Project') explains this finding in terms of life paths. Those who take a mindful life path are far more likely to outlive those who just float along waiting for life to happen. In other words those with some kind of plan or purpose will fair better over the long haul than those who are betting on fate. This idea has been revealed in many similar studies as well. Those who live life with a purpose tend to live longer, happier more engaged lives and some of the most engaged purposeful people I know are musicians.

Your life purpose

Most serious guitar players have a life purpose even if they work a day job and that purpose is to master the guitar. To some this may seem to pale in comparison to finding a renewable clean energy source or saving the whales but in terms of extending your life it works just as well. The researchers found that it did not matter what you did as long as you were conscientious about it and it did not involve other high risk factors. The question of course is how do you know if you are conscientious or not and if not how do you become conscientious. Let's answer one question at a time.

How do you know if you are conscientious?

Ask yourself what your typical week looks like. How much time do you spend working on projects that you are passionate about? Are you focused on doing a great job or would you prefer to be somewhere else? In the case of guitar this means when you practice are you engrossed in your practice.  A conscientious person pays close attention to the details. They are not in a rush to finish and in fact are likely to go overtime. There may very well be a deadline and they will deal with it but the aim is always to get the best result possible. A conscientious person will never just go through the motions. They are meticulous often checking their work several times just to be sure. Most importantly a conscientious person requires no incentives to give 100%. They do it because they see their work as meaningful.

In the next blog I will answer the second question. 'How do you become conscientious?'

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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Learning guitar and instant gratification

Instant gratification seems to be a hot topic these days. I often hear the older generations complaining that young people need to have everything now. If it's not instant they are not interested. I tend to believe we all feel like that at times but extensive research shows that children who learn to wait usually do better in life. I urge parents to checkout the Stanford 'Marshmallow study'.

More than 3 clicks and I'm not interested.

Website designers know very well the importance of providing instant gratification to visitors. In fact it's this need for instant gratification that has driven much of the phenomenal growth of the computer and Internet over the last 20 years. It's been reported that the Internet  has almost doubled in speed every year since it went public. When it comes to the net speed matters because speed equals instant. Amazon were one of the first companies to focus on minimizing the number of mouse clicks it takes to purchase after research found that with each click your company sales would go down. Drastically! We have become conditioned to expect much of our life on demand and we don't have time to wait but there are some things that are simply not available at the click of a mouse.

Short term gain, long term dissatisfaction

The irony of instant gratification for those who pursue it is long term dissatisfaction. Studies show that real long term satisfaction mostly comes from those achievements that require a long term commitment. Martin Seligan points out that the more we pursue outcomes that require a long term commitment the happier we tend to be. Children today are more at risk than ever when it comes to the negative effects of instant gratification which may help to explain the recent rapid rise in depression among children. They learn to expect everything instantly and when it doesn't happen they become depressed. The world has become very convenient and almost everything seems to happens at the push of a button and when it doesn't we get irritated. This can also lead one to believe that anything that requires too much effort is a waste of time.  After all 5 hours on a guitar is unlikely to make much difference to your playing but spend that time on a new video game and it might be flashing the words 'Congratulations. You are now a level 5 super champion.'

Spending your time wisely

Despite the obvious attraction of instant gratification your best strategy is to avoid such temptation when it comes to the important things in life. It is often better to spend your time focused on the long term benefits of learning guitar then the short term thrills of playing a game. When it comes to children I think learning a musical instrument is a great way for them to see this in action. It certainly worked for me as a child. I started learning music at 14 years of age and while frustrating at times I came to understand that it was a slow gradual process but was well worth the time and effort. Learning music goes far beyond just being able to play music. Its a lesson in life and happiness it seems.

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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The G4GUITAR METHOD for intermediate to advanced guitarists

As an intermediate guitarist it is likely you are wanting to know how to get to the next level. At this stage progress can often seem slow but the fact is if you are working on your skills they will improve. It's kind of like evolution. You don't notice it day by day but look back over time and its quite obvious. The focus therefore should be on developing your technique and this means putting yourself under the microscope. The 7 essential skills included in G4 GUITAR METHOD basically cover the most important areas that need constant focus if you hope to take your playing to the next level. These skills never change no matter what level you are at but where I find intermediate players getting stuck is often in the belief that they no longer need to work on these skills. E.g. Picking, rhythm, scales and so on. So perhaps its best if I  explain how they apply to you.

Picking technique in akin to a golfer’s swing or a swimmer’s stroke. Developing your picking technique should be ongoing. Check John Petrucci (Rock) or Frank Gambale (Jazz) for some examples of elite guitar pickers. These guys would spend time everyday  just on picking technique.

Chords  Depending on the style you wish to pursue will depend on which chords are most important to you. With chords you want to be able to play them quickly but any new chord takes time to learn no matter what your level. If for example you want to pursue jazz then grab yourself a jazz chord book and aim at learning one or two new chords each week but don't rush. The goal should be quality rather than quantity. You should also back this up with a theoretical understanding of how chords are formed so ultimately you can work out any chord (as any good guitar player should be able to do). Devote some time each day to chord development.

Arpeggios are in a sense a combination of picking and chords. Picking and chords should be about isolating the right and left hands where arpeggios bring the two together. If you are learning a particular song that involves an arpeggio and it seems difficult then you need to come back to your skills. Start with picking followed by chords and then work on the arpeggio last and repeat this process each time. i

Scales  Scale work will prepare you for learning songs, help you to learn the fret board, recognise patterns, develop your listening (aural) skills and build up finger strength and dexterity. Make sure you use a metronome to help develop evenness and to keep track of your progress. Also ensure you are doing sequences not just up and down the scale. Just ask your teacher for some scale sequence exercises.

Rhythm/Strumming is a huge part of guitar playing. The guitar for many is almost a percussive instrument. In fact the guitar can be tuned in a multitude of ways to make chords simple and easy to play to allow the percussive guitarist to focus on the strumming hand. Strumming should be isolated. You can see this in Latin and Flamenco styles. Practice muting the strings first before attempting to play with chords. Use a metronome when learning new rhythms. Pay close attention to your strumming hand to ensure you are striking the right strings each time. Try buying drumming or percussion books and work through the exercises.

Reading is more than just looking at notes. Music is a language and the written note is like the written word. It is an important part of any language. I would say the written language of music is one of the most amazing systems ever created. It is probably easier than any spoken language yet extremely sophisticated. Being able to read music will allow you to gain a better understanding of many theoretical concepts such as harmonic and melodic structure, rhythm etc. I could write a book on the benefits of reading but we will leave that for another time. Grab a copy of the Real Book and see how many songs you can sight read. If you are new to reading you can download the reading material from our Student Site. For the intermediate reader try playing in different positions opposed to just one position.

Aural refers to the listening side of music. In our case our ability to understand what we hear so we can transfer that knowledge on to the guitar. When you listen to music it should be like when you listen to someone speaking. You should be able to understand and even better recite back what you have heard. There is no greater gift for a musician than having a well trained ear. The good news is your ear can be trained at any age but usually the younger the better. You actually already have a certain amount of training but may not always aware of it.

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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Do you enjoy guitar practice?

If your only reason for practicing guitar is to one day become a great guitar player ironically you may actually be decreasing your chances of success. After many years of teaching guitar, associating with guitarists, reading about and living among guitarists and wannabe guitarists you begin to see patterns. Maybe its just a coincidence but I think given the evidence its becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the facts.

Pain does not always equal gain

The journey to mastery is a long, winding and somewhat steep road. Those who suffer practice with the idea of one day becoming masters are unlikely to persist long enough. There are of course a handful who go through years and years of pain and sacrifice to finally reach a point of relative mastery but it's a long shot and you need to ask whether the feeling of achievement which is often short lived is really worth it. At the same time I am certainly not suggesting you avoid hard work or boring practice sessions because they are part and parcel but if you are not enjoying your practice at least some of the time you are far more likely to give up. My point as you will see is that there needs to be more to your practice than a no pain no gain policy if you are going to go the distance.

Success is but a fleeting moment

Let us pretend for a minute that there was a point where you become a successful guitar player. Maybe after 10,000 hours of practice and let us also pretend there is an official list where all the successful guitarists are recorded once they reach this point. If you did happen to reach this point and get listed you would feel a sense of achievement but studies show this feeling of achievement is like a flash compared to the thousands of hours invested.  Mountain climbers know this feeling. Reaching the summit is thrilling but the thrill is short lived. Within a relatively short period of time they will be planning their next mountain climb.

Great guitar players love practicing

Learning to love practice is the key. Ask any great guitar player (and I don't mean famous but actually skillful) and you will find someone who is obsessed with practice. They don't care if they have an audience or not. They pick up the guitar because they enjoy developing their playing and taking it to the next level.  I know many students find practice boring especially when it comes to the skills such as scales, arpeggios, reading etc. but this is usually because you have not given yourself a chance. Music is like a language and when learning a language the first stages are difficult but once you get to a certain level it becomes enjoyable. The key is consistency and balance. You need to do it everyday and you need to balance the important areas such as skill development with having fun such as trying out new songs or favourite riffs. The more you focus on finding the pleasure in your practice while being mindful of skill development the more likely you are to continue long term.

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