Chord Geology

IMG_20160707_162006I know I’m a little late to this party, but have you heard of Ted Greene and Lenny Breau? They were great solo jazz guitarists who, incidentally, played fingerstyle.

Lenny was inspired by Chet Atkins and developed a magical sounding technique of playing cascading artificial harmonics over jazz chords. Ted picked up the harmonics technique from Lenny, studied fingerstyle jazz with a fella named George Van Epps, and dove deep, deep, DEEP into harmony and chord voicings on the guitar.

I’ve been digging into Ted’s books “Chord Chemistry” and “Modern Chord Progressions,” and have spent several weeks now rediscovering chord scales using various fingerings suggested therein. But it’s playing them fingerstyle, rather than strumming, that’s really made them come alive for me recently.

I’m just kinda taken with the sound of 4-note chords, where you play the notes simultaneously by plucking with your thumb and fingers. I’ve always liked the balance you can achieve this way, where all the notes of the chord appear at the same volume and your ears weigh them all together.

Then you move horizontally up or down the chord scale, and maybe break them up into pairs of notes on each chord, and it generates melodies – melodies that were always there in the chords.

I’m not really dealing with all possible chords interacting yet, I’m staying pretty diatonic. Just sifting through what’s there, like studying the layers of the Earth’s crust. Maybe this diatonic phase of my musical study should be called “Chord Geology.”

Used Stuff From Guitar Center

100_2163Guitar Center’s website has great cheap gear on their used page, but it’s a little convoluted to check out. Easy to get frustrated, so here’s a walk-through.

Let’s say you want a Digitech RP155 multi-effects unit (hundreds of cool sounds, editable via USB).

Go to the Guitar Center Used Gear page.

Search for RP155

They’re going used for $25 (?!!) to $50.

If you’re lucky, you’ll find one with a power supply, because it will only work with Digitech’s 9v power supply, and will fry with any other. If no power supply is included, count on an extra $15 to buy one.

Found one you want? Awesome, let’s check out.

Choose item, select and copy the item #.

Then go back to the Guitar Center main page and search for that item #. If available, item will appear and you can “add to cart” and checkout, paying shipping. If you need a power supply, add to cart, keep shopping, then check out.

It’s super annoying that it seems you can’t order directly from the Used page, but on the other hand, it’s cheap stuff that works. Can’t really complain. Happy shopping!

Student Releases Indie-Folk CD

Originally posted in 2013. Big congratulations to my student Robert Hamill, who spent the summer of writing and recording a 5-song EP, titled False Souls. We made the record in my home studio, and decided to place the spotlight on Robert’s acoustic guitar, voice, and original indie-folk songs, with flourishes of electric guitar and keyboard, plus a saxophone solo, all played by Robert.

Along the way, I programmed beats on a couple of songs, engineered, and provided overall production guidance, mainly as a sounding board and facilitator for Robert’s own production ideas. Please have a listen using the jukebox embedded above.

Hamill just performed at the Keene Music Festival for the first time, and is off to Boston for college this fall. This project was a great conclusion to two years of working together studying alternate tunings, chord theory, R&B, blues, and indie pop. Best wishes to you, Robert!

In Praise of Songbooks

When I was twelve, I learned many of my first chords from a book called The Beatles Fakebook. It had dozens of songs by my favorite band laid out simply: one song per page. I thumbed through the book endlessly, trying out songs that looked easy, eking my way through harder ones. It was inspiring. I got hooked and requested guitar lessons. The rest is history.

Beginners today spend a lot of time online, looking up free “tabs” for songs. There’s reason for concern about the accuracy of user-submitted tabs, but here’s an observation I think is more to the point: the more time you spend hunting for songs online, the less time you spend playing your guitar.

Go Old School: Read A Book
I suggest buying a few songbooks. They’re generally MUCH more accurate than user-generated materials at free tab sites, they’re not expensive, and once you have it on your bookshelf, you can explore new songs whenever you want and focus your free time on actually playing, rather than searching.

Songbooks also help you sidestep the risk of what my former student Todd calls “the Youtube lateral drift,” where you start out looking for useful tutorials and end up watching funny cat videos.

Chord Songbooks
These are often called “fakebooks,” but in my opinion, there’s nothing fake about making good-sounding music quickly and easily. Each song has chord symbols and lyrics. No piano arrangements, no page turns. Each song fits on one or two facing pages. You can find books devoted solely to songs by Adele, books focused on Green Day or Bob Dylan, and also collections that span multiple artists grouped by genre.

Tab Books
Tab books are oriented toward more technical playing. Folks interested in riff-based music, in fiddle tunes, in guitar solos should look here. Tab is a form of music notation that uses six horizontal lines to represent the guitar strings, and numbers to tell you what fret to play, plus a variety of squiggles and abbreviations to indicate bends, hammer-ons and pull-offs. You can get beginner “easy tab” versions of your favorite songs, or you can get the more advanced “recorded version” transcriptions which show every move Jimi Hendrix made on “Purple Haze,” in detail.

My List
Here’s my list of guitar book recommendations, including some instruction manuals and some songbooks.

I encourage students to use the Internet to help with learning. There’s a lot of great free material out there, including videos, chord charts and tabs. I create some of it myself, and I’ll consult it when I’m in a hurry.

The search for these materials, however, can take up more of your time than it ought to, especially considering the questionable accuracy of what you’ll find.

I say, cut out the middleman. Pick out a few good books and spend your time playing!

Bite-Sized Practicing

Practicing even just a little bit every day will probably help you more than practicing for an hour once a week. If you’re pressed for time, try working on just one idea when you pick up the guitar.

The one idea could be, “I’m going to get really good at this E to G chord change.” Or see if you can memorize that new scale you learned a few days before.

It can get overwhelming when you feel like you have to practice everything you know, every time you pick up your instrument, so streamline it: give yourself a simple, tiny warmup that you do every time, and then work on one, maybe two ideas. That’s fifteen to twenty minutes of practice, right there.

I’m not saying you should limit your daily practice to twenty minutes, but if that’s all the time you have during a crazy week, do what you gotta do. Just keep playing every day!

How To Read Guitar Tab

Guitar tablature, or “tab,” is a music notation system that uses six horizontal lines to represent the strings of your guitar. The bottom lines are your bass strings, the top lines are your treble strings. Numbers are placed on the lines to show which frets to play on which strings, and you read them left to right. The order of the strings looks upside-down to a lot of people at first, but you get used to it.

Example #1

E(1st)- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
B(2nd- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
G(3rd)- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
D(4th)- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
A(5th) - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
E(6th)- - - - 0- - 3- - 5- - - - - 0- -3 - 6- 5- -

In the example above, you are playing notes on your low E string (the 6th string). You start on the open string (“0”), then play the 3rd fret, then the 5th fret, and so on. This example should sound like “Smoke on the Water,” by Deep Purple.

Example #2

E(1st)- - - 3- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
B(2nd- - - -0 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
G(3rd)- - - 0- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
D(4th)- - - 0- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
A(5th) - - -2 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
E(6th)- - - 3- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

When you see notes aligned vertically, it means to set up all the notes and then strum them simultaneously. In this example, it’s a G chord.

Example #3

E(1st)- - - - - - - - - - - - - -3 - - - - - - - - - - - -
B(2nd- - - - - - - - - - - - -0 - - - - - - - - - - - - -
G(3rd)- - - - - - - - - - 0- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
D(4th)- - - - - - - - 0- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
A(5th) - - - - - -2 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
E(6th)- - - - 3- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Here we’re playing one note at a time, starting on the 6th string (your lowest bass string) and moving up one string at a time. It can help to look at the frets and try to figure out if a familiar chord is being spelled out by the numbers. In this case, it’s the G chord again.


Guitar tab does a good job of telling you which strings and which frets to play, but it doesn’t tell you which fingers to use, so you have to experiment with different fingers until you find a fingering that’s efficient. Once again, it’s really helpful if you can spot when scale and chord shapes you already know are being used.

Rhythms & Using Your Ear

Basic tablature doesn’t usually indicate the exact rhythm, just the order of the notes, so you’ll need to consult recordings to really get a feel for the timing. While there are more complicated versions of tablature out there that do include rhythm notation, in my opinion, it’s more important to develop your ability to listen closely and then use basic tab to give you a starting point when you’re learning a song.

This is especially important when browsing user-generated tabs online, since they may not be totally accurate. You don’t want to spend hours learning from a tab, only to find it doesn’t sound right when you play along with the original recording.

It’s a tough call sometimes, since maybe it’s the tab that’s not correct, or maybe you’re just not playing it right! When I’m learning a song I’ve always wanted to learn and it’s important to me, I usually buy an official “Recorded Versions” tab book so I can be sure of its accuracy. It’s worth thirty bucks for the peace of mind, plus you usually get an album’s worth of songs.


All notation systems take some getting used to, whether we’re talking about tablature, standard sheet music, chord charts, or the scribbled song structure diagram your bass player hands you at rehearsal. Tab is a great tool for learning riffs and picking patterns quickly, and like everything in guitar playing, you use your ears, your eyes, and your fingers together to make the sounds you want.

How To Read Chord Charts

In the chord charts on this site, the chords are lined up approximately over the word where they arrive in the song.


G               C       G            D
Hey, where did we go, days when the rain came?
G           C        G        D
Down in the hollow, playing a new game

Each chord lasts one measure (four beats) unless it’s followed by a number in parentheses. “E(2)” would be an E chord that lasts two measures (eight beats).


        A           D             E(2)
"We'll meet again someday on the avenue,"
G       D      A
Tangled up in blue.

For waltzes, the measure lasts only three beats, and I’ll make a note at the top of the chart. Most songs have four beats to the measure, though.

Also worth noting: some songs change chords every two beats. Jack Johnson’s “Waiting Wishing” and James Taylor’s “Carolina in My Mind” fall into that category. Two beats is half-measure, so look out for a (1/2) after those chords.

Occasionally, there are other combinations, too. You might see a chord with a (3/4) followed by a second chord with a (1/4) after it. That would mean the first chord lasts three beats, while the second chord lasts only one beat.

Here’s a great shorthand notation for chord fingerings that was invented, as far as I know, by Rob Hampton of

G 320003       D xx0232     C x32010    Em 022000

From left to right, the numbers tell you what frets to play from your lowest bass string to your highest treble string. So “G 320003” means “third fret on the low E string, second fret on the A string, open D string, open G string, open B string, and third fret on the high E string.” An “x” means to skip that string.

Strum Patterns
If you don’t have a lot of strum patterns in your repertoire yet, try just strumming each chord once and singing the words. The rhythm of the words will keep the beat moving, and you can start to get a feel for the song.

If you’re quick at switching chords, try four quarter notes, or eight 8th notes. Either of those patterns is four beats long, so they’re good for one measure each. I’ll write “D” to indicate a downward strum and “u” for upward strums:

D   D   D   D
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +


1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +


D u D u D u D u
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

Hopefully that gets you started! Ready to try some of my free chord charts?

How To Use An Electronic Tuner

100_1523-150x150I’m all in favor of learning to tune by ear, but when you’re starting out, it’s probably more important to get your guitar in tune quickly so you can spend more time learning to play.

An electronic tuner listens to your open string and tells you what note you’re tuned to, usually using a horizontal dial that swings left when you’re too low, and right when you’re too high.

With this type of tuner, you know you’re in tune when it displays the correct note name and gives you an arrow that’s straight up the middle.

To get started, just pluck the open string, reach over and find the correct tuning peg, and then turn it slowly while the string is still ringing. If you go slowly and watch the tuner’s display, you can see if you’re getting closer to the middle of the dial or farther away.

String Names
You’ll need to know the string names: E A D G B E. That’s counting from the 6th string (the lowest-pitched bass string) to the 1st string (the highest-pitched treble string). It helps to play the strings in order, either 1-2-3-4-5-6 or 6-5-4-3-2-1, rather than jumping around, so you don’t mix up which strings you’ve tuned and which ones still need to be adjusted.

Common Problems:

1. You can be perfectly in tune to the wrong note.
Make sure the note name on the tuner matches the correct note name for the string, without any “b” or “#” symbol after it. There are usually three versions of each note: flat, sharp, and natural. Ab is A-flat. A# is A-sharp. A is A natural. You want all natural notes.

2. The tuner gives the wrong note name.
Sometimes your tuner will flip between two totally different notes for the same string, for example B and F#, seemingly at random. Try playing the 12th fret rather than the open string. It’s the same note, played an octave higher, and in some cases, the tuner will hear that note more clearly than the open string.

Or better yet, play a harmonic on the 12th fret. Lightly touch the string directly over the fret and pop your finger off just after you pluck the string. It helps to position your pick close to the bridge (where your strings attach to the body of the guitar). A harmonic is a high-pitched, chiming version of the open string note and leaves both of your hands free to adjust the tuning.

Why Use An Electronic Tuner?
In the long run, tuning by ear will be more valuable, since it teaches you to listen closely and develop your musical ear, but for right now, it’s more important to get your guitar sounding good quickly, so you can focus on learning the hand skills that guitar requires – using the tips of your fingers on the strings, strumming, and always stretching out to get close to the fret.

Plus, a clip-on or plug-in electronic tuner will help you get in tune anywhere, even in a noisy environment. Music is often a social event, and if you want to share your music with others, it’s a GOOD sign when you can’t hear very well: it means you have lots of folks to play for. But a crowd does make tuning by ear difficult, so get good at using your tuner.

Guitars For Kids

100_1522-150x1503/4 Size
I think children under 10 should probably play 3/4-sized guitars. As far as acoustic vs electric, there are good arguments for both…

Electric Guitar
For kids, I think electric guitars are easier to hold and play, and they also have a “cool factor,” which is motivating! Accessories: a small amplifier, an instrument cable, a guitar strap, a clip-on electronic tuner, and some picks.

Acoustic Guitar
On the other hand, acoustic guitars are great for kids also. The strings are a little harder to press down, but they don’t require an amplifier, which makes practicing and traveling simpler. Accessories: a clip-on electronic tuner and some picks.


Electric guitar is cool and easier to hold and play. Also, it rocks.

Acoustic guitar is a little harder to play, but has a richer sound. It doesn’t require an amplifier, so you can be more spontaneous.

Get whichever guitar you want! If your child sticks with it for a year, get them a second guitar of the other kind, and they’ll have all their musical options covered.

Your First Guitar

Buying your first guitar can be daunting for a beginner, on par with getting work done on your car. “So you’re saying I need to replace my trans-rotary gyro belt…hmm, well I guess you’re the expert…”

To help with this situation, here are some things to consider:

Look and Feel
You want a guitar that’s the right size, and which looks, sounds, and feels good to you. Kids under 12 often can’t reach the 1st fret on an adult-sized guitar, so they’ll need a 1/2 or 3/4 scale model. Are you left-handed? You’ll need a lefty guitar.

Low Action = Easier To Play
Whatever guitar you get, try to avoid ones whose strings are high off the fretboard. That’s called “high action” and it makes it harder to fret the notes. You need all the help you can get when you’re starting out, so either get a guitar with low action or have your high-action guitar adjusted at the shop so it’s easier to play.

Electric Guitar?
Speaking of easier to play, consider starting on the electric guitar. Especially for kids, its lighter strings are easier to fret, and no, you’re not cheating by giving yourself a break. You’re giving yourself time to actually get hooked on playing the guitar. Plus, electric guitar is cool, and it makes you cool, by extension.

I’ve played mostly acoustic guitar for the last fifteen years, but I wonder if I would have stuck with it this long if I hadn’t built up my confidence by playing electric guitar for the first five years. There’s something to be said for getting directly to rocking, especially when you’re a kid.

Musical Style
Another important consideration is the style of music you want to learn. Steel string acoustic guitars lend themselves to strumming, fingerpicking, songwriting, and playing outdoors, maybe around a campfire. Electric guitars are rock ‘n roll and can easily be amplified to play with a drummer. They’re also good for noodley improvisation, and can use effects processing to get experimental, space-age, avant-garde sounds. By contrast, the nylon-string acoustic guitar is the sound of Latin America, Bossa Nova, classical music, gypsy and flamenco music.

Nicer instruments generally last longer, sound better, and are easier to play, so get the best instrument you can afford. Better acoustic guitars tend to have solid wood backs and sides, and better electric guitars have more reliable electronics, as well as tone-specific wood. Try out a bunch of guitars at the store, and check Craigslist for used guitars.

You’ll probably want a case, an electronic tuner, some picks, a backup pack of strings, and a string winder. The case can be hardshell (better protection) or a soft gigbag (lighter, with backpack straps).

Lots to think about. Here’s a quick summary: get a guitar that’s easy to play, with low action, which is the right size for you, and which fits the style of music you’re excited to learn.