Why Practice with a Piezo Pickup?

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Simply in one word: sound.


I absolutely love the silky-smooth sounds of a well-played nylon string guitar and I can appreciate an equally well-played acoustic steel string. Conversely, I absolutely hate the sound of an acoustic guitar played through a piezo pickup, whether a nylon or a steel string. It’s the worst "musical" sound ever. It sounds like a rusted thin wire wrapped in plastic scraping against… plastic. Okay, I threw the rusted part in, but piezo pickups sound awful when you are trying to achieve a natural acoustic amplified sound. So, why would I recommend practicing with one?

Why Practice with a Piezo Pickup?

It is precisely because playing with a guitar, that has a piezo pickup, sounds so terribly bad. It allows you to work on making it sound good. The piezo pickup on the guitar is going to exaggerate everything, and I mean everything. Every move you make will be amplified. Every missed note, every string squeak, every buzz, every poorly executed shift, the guitar will let you know it. The pickup is very unforgiving and it will sound appalling at first. However, it’s exactly those things that are being exaggerated that lets you know what you need to work on.

Are you squeaking when your hand shifts position? Practice shifting until it’s clean. Are you buzzing notes? Work on that section until it is crystal clear. This may take some time to clean up, but it will force you to play better and cleaner.

Never Perform with a Piezo Pickup

Okay, I know, it’s a personal opinion, but I recommend never performing with a piezo pickup for the same reason as I recommend practicing with one. The sound is dreadful. If you have practiced for long hours and you’re playing is spotless, then by all means, go ahead and perform on one. However, could you imagine how good your performance will sound, if you have spent that time cleaning up your playing and then performing it acoustically (i.e., using a microphone instead)? I’ll give you one word: professional.

This is not a rant against piezo pickups. They do what they do. The slightly plastic sound works well in jazz music for example. It sounds like it’s supposed to be there. However, when trying to achieve a purely acoustic sound, I haven’t seen many people be able to pull off a sparkling sound with one. If you can play clean on a guitar, with a piezo pickup, and making it clean and not sound like plastic on plastic then, please, by all means, send me the video.

Not the Only Solution

I want to be clear here. I’m not asking you, or telling you to only practice on a piezo pickup. Only that using the piezo pickup, like other things, will reveal weaknesses in our playing. Just like other techniques such as practicing in front of a mirror, recording yourself, or filming your practice, this will show you where you can improve you playing.

If you don’t have a piezo pickup in your guitar, there’s no need to go out and purchase one. Many acoustic guitars and even classical guitars come with one. Nevertheless, if you have a guitar with a piezo pickup, give it a try and see if you can improve your playing.

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5 Things You Need to Learn Classical & Fingerstyle Guitar, Part V: A Good Teacher

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A Good Teacher Can Shave Off Years of Practice and Frustration.


It’s been a while now since I started playing the classical guitar. I’ve learned a great many things since picking up the instrument in 2009. One of those is that there’s no substitute for a good teacher. A good teacher is someone who knows what they’re doing and how to convey it to others. While there are a plethora of videos, tutorials, and books to learn from, a good teacher is one of the greatest treasures in the trove.

What a Good Teacher Offers

Here are a few things that a good teacher will bring to the table. This is not an exhaustive list, but just a few things that come to mind:

First of all, a good teacher will be able to correct bad technique especially when sitting in the same room with you (as opposed to Zoom or Skype lessons). One of the most challenging aspects of the self-taught guitarist is poor, bad, even wretched technique. Whether it is your sitting position, the way you hold the guitar, right-hand finger position, left-hand position, especially the thumb, and much more. Learning how and why to use good hand position and proper technique, not only will make you a better musician, but it could also save your hands from having issues down the road.

Second, a good teacher, can show you how easy it is to read music, something I use to be terrified of. I find that many, many, potentially great guitarist refuses to learn how to read music notation. Whether out of fear, as in my case, or shear laziness. A good teacher can guide a student into reading, even dare I say, sight reading, music that has been notated, broadening the students’ knowledge, skills, and potential repertoire.

Third, oh, I don’t want to use this analogy (but I know people will understand it), a good teacher can be the ‘Obi-wan Kenobi’ to the student’s ‘Luke Skywalker’. Bad analogies aside, a good teacher is a guide, a mentor, and a leader to train the young padawan in the ways of the… um… musical force. Now I’ve done it, are you satisfied? One thing I’ve never had in my life is a mentor. I’ve been left to figure this stuff out on my own and one of the things that I’ve learned is, if possible, get a good mentor/teacher who knows what they’re doing.

Fourth, a good teacher can help the student grow exponentially. I’ve made more progress when studying with a good teacher than when I’m not. Training someone to do something, whether guitar or something else, takes a good grasp of the subject. The teacher will then be able to share that knowledge, guiding the student to having a mastery of the subject as well. A good teacher will help the student build a good foundation. A good teacher will walk the path with the student to build those skills to which the student can achieve their goals. They’ll know which path to take.

What Self-Teaching Offers

I don’t mean to trash those who have been self-taught. There are a lot of good players out there who are self-taught. However, I’ve been around long enough to see the fruit that bad teaching and bad practice produces. Here are a few I’ve noticed.

Playing a Classical/Nylon Guitar with a Pick

Okay, no a major point but one thing that bugs me to no end is to see a nylon guitar played with a pick or with someone sticking their pinky finger on the sound board, drives me nuts. Can a nylon guitar be played with a pick? I’m under contract to answer ‘yes’, but please do realize, the nylon/classical guitar is designed for fingerpicking… and yes, it can be played with a pick and many professions do it wonderfully.

Wrists on the Soundboard

Another thing that I see is guitarists playing with their wrist practically touching the sound board because their forearm is so low. Believe it or not, this can actually cause issues with your fingers and wrists later on down the road. The forearm should be lifted slightly (maybe even an inch or an inch and a half) above the sound board with the wrist straight and the fingers can be extended all the way and where you use your knuckle (the joint of a finger, especially the joint connecting the fingers to the hand) to execute playing the note.

The Hitchhiker

Ever see the guitar player with his thumb sticking up above the fingerboard… he’ll get a ride eventually. This was considered bad form back in the day. I believe they called it ‘Eagle Clawing’ and it was a no-no when I picked up my first guitar. Now-a-days it seems that it’s become part of the technique for electric and steel string acoustic players. Not so for a classical player, but I’ve seen people do it, or at least try to. The left-hand thumb should be place flat on the back of the neck, roughly between the first and second finger. It shouldn’t pop-up above the neck at all.

Conclusion

Okay, I’ve rambled enough, but bear with me for one more example. If someone watches a video with a really good teacher about right-hand position. Then leaves the video and forgets what was said about the right-hand position. They will continue with bad technique. However, if the student has poor right-hand position and the student goes home, forgets what was said, then the teacher can correct the right-hand position again in the next lesson.

The point is that a good teacher can correct many of the problems that arise before they get ingrained into the student. With the proper approach the teacher can set the student up for success in the majority of the areas pertaining to the guitar. A good teacher is worth the fee.

Fun fact: It’s taken me almost a year to write this series.

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Snagging the Hard Parts



An approach to working pass the challenging parts in a piece.


Have you ever?

Have you ever tried to learn a piece of music and find that most of it is easy enough to learn, but there is always that one spot (or two) that consistently gives you a headache that ibuprofen won’t cure? We’ve all been there. The pain in the hands, the frustration, the desire to give up and take up pottery classes instead. What if I told you there is a way to work through these rather ego slaying sections with ease, beauty, and finesse? What if I told you it didn’t have to be this hard? 

“Yeah, right!” you’d say and to be honest, you’d be right. 

Unfortunately, there are no magic bullets to accomplishing these feats. However, there are approaches and concepts, which, if you work into your practice upfront, it’ll make life a little easier in the long run (well, at least the guitar practicing part of your life). 

My Practice Method

I think my practice approach is a little different than most. It takes a little longer to learn a piece of music. However, in the end, it’s learned and if I practice it once a week, it’s in my repertoire. At least, that has been my experience. It may not be a polished performance piece, but it’s still in memory.

To learn a piece of music, I normally take a phrase and practice it as an exercise until I have it up to a metronome setting just above the top speed. So, for example if the speed of the piece is 112, I aim to play the phrase cleanly at 122. I may start at 25% (yes, 25%) and work it up to full speed. 

Let me explain. When you start a phrase, set the metronome at 25%. Play it five times perfectly in a row. If you mess up just once, you will have to start over at 1. This does wonders for your phrasing. It will also identify the hard parts in the phrase.

Isolate the Hard Parts

Once you have identified the part that’s giving you trouble, take a pencil, circle it (I put parenthesis around it), include a beat in front of it and a beat behind it (don’t play to far or it this will not work as well), and play only the circled section five times at the speed you’re practicing at. 

So, for example: you have a phrase that you’re starting at 28 bpm. Half way through the phrase you run into a section that is difficult to play. You circle that section, including a beat before and a beat after. Then you play that section five times in a row perfectly. Then, and only then, do you go back and practice the whole phrase five times in a row perfectly, before moving on. 

An excerpt from my original composition, "Something About Flowers" 

What Then?

Move the metronome up 10 bmp. So, for our example: move the metronome up to 38. Practice the hard section 5 times in a row perfectly before practicing the whole phrase. After that, practice the whole phrase 5 times in a row perfectly. Once you can play it five times in a row perfectly, move up 10 beats on the metronome (for our example, move the metronome up to 48). Wash, rinse, and repeat until you can play it at full tempo.

Conclusion

I know that there could be people who take issue with some of my wording, but don’t get hung up in the weeds. A phrase is basically a music sentence, usually consisting of four measures. Listen to the section you’re playing and you will be able to pick out where it ends. What I mean by perfectly is to play through the section cleanly with no mistakes. Take your time. You’ll get it.


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5 Things You Need to Learn Classical & Fingerstyle Guitar, Part IV: A Guitar Method Book

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Creating a Good Foundation


There is a plethora of guitar methods in the world. Most of them that I’ve seen contain a great number of accomplished exercises in them for the guitarist to learn. From Carulli and Giuliani studies to The Christopher Parkening Guitar Method (Vol. 1 and 2, respectively) and Hal Leonard. There’s not a want for guitar methods. However, which one should be used? Which one is the best at covering all the knowledge that a guitarist needs to know? The answer is… all of the above.

Which Method is Best?

With all of the good material out there, which one is the best book to learn from? That’s really up to your instructor and, yes, I highly recommend that you have a personal instructor, whether that be on-line through something like Skype, or in person lessons. An experienced and qualified instructor is your number one option to learn and improve your guitar playing, but more on that in another post.

Your instructor will know which method is the best approach, the best for the student, and the best one to teach out of. I was taught out of the Christopher Parkening Guitar Methods (Vol. 1 and 2). For the most part they are the ones that I’m most familiar with and the ones I would recommend to a student. They are not the only methods that work, obviously. What I most like about them is their approach to teaching the material.

Not So Much a Method, but an Approach

I think it is safe to say that teaching by playing pieces is the most engaging and interesting way to instruct a student. To my understanding, previous paths to virtuosity was wrought with many intensive exercises and drills that basically bored the student and made the learning of the instrument a challenge to say the least. I’m not sure if this is been abandoned for the most part because exercises and drills obviously make you stronger in your playing.

However, when I was first learning, the approach used and proclaimed to be the best was a mixture of exercises and drills and easily attainable pieces that reinforces the concepts and techniques that were being taught. That is be far the approach that I like and employ when teaching. Nobody wants to learn guitar by dry dull rote (The Free Dictionary defines “learning by rote” as to use repetition to memorize something, as opposed to acquiring a full or robust comprehension of it). Students want to play beautiful repertoire. That’s why they picked up the guitar in the first place. By giving the student attenable pieces to play, you give them an exciting path to the technique required to play beautifully. By the way I’m still learning, you will always be learning.

Don’t Make Mountains out of Molehills

You have probably heard the expression, “Don’t make a mountain out of a mole hill.” I have a saying that I like, “Mountains are made out of little mole hills.” That’s all they are and if you address one mole hill at a time, eventually, you will climb the mountain. Learning the technique, practicing the exercise, and playing a piece of music that enforces the technique, seems to me, the best pathway to success.

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What Hath Reading the Bible to do with Guitar?


Introduction

Recently I’ve had discussions within my circles about Christians who don’t read God’s Word, the Bible, on a regular basis. I must admit that this perplexes me. There can be a plethora of reasons given that this happens, or doesn’t happen, but for the believer in Christ, it should be happening. I want to you know that I’m talking to the believer here. I don’t have any expectations that an unbeliever would read God’s Word or have any hopes of understanding it in any meaningful way. There are many unbelievers who love to argue against the Bible who have never bothered reading or studying it at all and just want to repeat an argument that they think has some validity, but doesn’t realize that their new found argument has been refuted decades or even centuries before. As the Bible says:

“And this is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the Light; for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light, so that his deeds will not be exposed. But the one who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds will be revealed as having been performed in God.” (John 3:19-21; NASB)

So, what hath reading the Bible to do with the guitar? As stated before, there are similarities that we can draw from practice to life.

What Happens When You Read?

Reading God’s Word, the Bible, is like someone who practices their instrument. Eventually, they’re going to getting better. You spend countless hours practicing and making time for the things you love. Just as your practice of chords, scales, and arpeggios train your fingers for the task at hand (see what I did there?), so the reading of the Bible trains us for life and is, “beneficial for teaching, for rebuke, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16 NASB). Since all Scripture is inspired by God, God’s Word teaches us how to live life.

Think of it as the technique of life. When we are trained to play the instrument, we are being taught how to hold the guitar, how to read music (or tabs), and hopefully how and what to practice. When we read the Bible, we are being taught, “to present your bodies as a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2; NASB). Our mind and thinking needs transformed. We need our thinking to become like God’s thinking and then, and only then will we be able to understand what God’s will for us is.

We are to be “conformed to the image of His Son,” (Romans 8:29; NASB). To be conformed to the image of Christ we must read His Word, the Bible, just like “looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18; NASB). To look into the Bible, the Word of God, is to be looking into the face of Jesus. The way to transforming our thinking is reading (and studying). The way to look like Christ is to be in His Word.

Again “…and have put on the new self, which is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created it…” (Colossians 3:10; NASB). To gain a true knowledge of Him, is to be in His Word.

We are to become mature in Christ as believers:

“Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature.” (1 Corinthians 14:20; NASB)

“For we rejoice when we ourselves are weak, but you are strong; this we also pray for, that you become mature.” (2 Corinthians 13:9; NASB)

“…until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13; NASB)

“But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to distinguish between good and evil.” (Hebrews 5:14; NASB)

To look like and act like Christ is the goal in a mature, godly character.

What Doesn’t Happen When You Don’t Read

Oh boy, this article is getting a bit long, but bear with me. Simply put: when you don’t read, you’re not transformed, you’re conformed to the pattern of this world’s thinking. You don’t gain insight into the mind of Christ, you don’t mature, you don’t grow up. Any infant that does not receive regular healthy nourishment grows weak and eventually dies. The Word of God is our spiritual food, our spiritual nourishment. Without it we grow weak and die.

To tie this back into practicing guitar, try not practicing for a week, a month, a year, and see if you get any better at your craft. Up for that? Right, I didn’t think so.

As Ray Comfort has been quoted as saying, “No read, no feed.” Maybe for someone who loves to play the guitar, it should be, “No read, no play,” but I like to eat to… so.

Practical Suggestions

Wow, close to 1,000 words in this article so far. If you have read my other posts, you know I try to keep them short and manageable, as to not lose your attention… or mine. However, if you made it this far, here are some practical suggestions for reading the Bible. Just like your guitar practice:

  1. Have a set time to read and study where you have minimal or no distractions.
  2. Have a set place to read and study. This could be at your desk, in your recliner, or on the back porch. It doesn’t matter, just as long as you have a quiet place to read and reflect.
  3. Have a set schedule. I have my own reading plan in which I read the New Testament once a year and the Old Testament in two years. It’s not as intense as the one-year plans and it gives you a little more time to reflect on what you’re reading. If you would like to look at it and see if it works for you, please download Pauly's Two Year Bible Reading Plan.
  4. If you have a lot of “windshield time”, i.e., if you drive a lot, get an audio Bible and listen to it.
  5. If you happen to miss a day, all is not lost. Make a plan to get caught up. In full transparence, when writing this article, I didn’t get to my Old Testament reading. When I get behind in my reading, I read an extra chapter a day until I get caught back up. That’s also one of the benefits to the Pauly’s Two Year Bible Reading Plan.
  6. Cultivate Reading. Like playing an instrument, this is a great habit to learn. Sometimes, habits take time to cultivate, but practice makes perfect, and in this case: in more ways than one.

There is one more thing I would like to address. I’ve heard some Christians state that we should not just do “eyeball time.” That is reading God’s Word without thinking about it or reading it to just “check off a box.” I would encourage you to actively read and think about what you’re reading. However, that’s one of the best boxes you can check off every day. You’re going to have “dry” times in reading. It just happens. However, when you recognize that your mind is wandering, don’t stop reading, reengage!

To look like, to act like Jesus in our character is the goal. Christ is the goal. To become Christlike, we need to know Who and How He is. To know Who and How He is, we must read His Word (the Bible). God uses His Word to transform your life. Read.

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