“You Can Play Your Favorite Song, Even if There’s No Guitar”

I was working with a student during a Zoom guitar lesson a few weeks ago, and he requested a soundtrack song from the movie “Drive.” He was apologetic, since it didn’t have guitar, but could we look at it? Of course! Adapting non-guitar songs is one of my favorite activities, and I’ve been doing it since I was 13. It’s just music. If it has notes and chords, you can probably play a version of it on guitar. No apologies required : )

Coffee Shop Jam – June 24, 2018

I’m so proud of all the student performers this past weekend! It was a great return for the Coffee Shop Jam, this past Sunday June 24, 2018 at Local Burger in Keene, NH.

The Coffee Shop Jam is an informal performance opportunity I organize for my students, and this time around, we had 12 student performers who played guitar and ukulele.

Some students performed totally solo, some played duets with me. At the end, we played a couple of big group songs.

The Coffee Shop Jam gives students an exciting (and scary) goal to work toward, and based on everybody’s feedback, a blast was had by all.

The next event isn’t scheduled yet, but I’m aiming to do it again in the fall, possible in October. Keep practicing, everybody!

Here’s the song list from last Sunday:

Crazy Train
Closing Day (original)
CM, guitar

Blitzkrieg Bop
Folsom Prison Blues
CT, ukulele

You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away
WI & TD, guitar

Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
AP, ukulele

Take Me to the Water (original)
Tell Me The Future (original)
NT & TD, guitar

Make It With You
JM & TD, guitar

Aloha ‘Oe
Coal Miner’s Daughter
Take Me Home, O Hawaii (original)
SH & TD, ukulele

Dear Prudence
JS & TD, guitar

Marry Me
Little Talks
Safe & Sound
OS & TD, guitar

Message in a Bottle
Greasy Coat
KB & TD, guitar

LK & TD, guitar

Johnny B. Goode
Everybody, guitar & ukulele

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.