Tag Archives: blues guitar

Sharpening the Axe

19 Mar

In Stephen Covey’s list of “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” he talks about “sharpening the saw” – which is his euphemism for actively learning.  He recommends continually putting yourself through education, training, reading books, listening to tapes, etc.  And while one most certainly could say that he included this one just to make sure his devotees had continued motivation to buy his stuff, nonetheless, I strongly believe that continual learning one of the keys to lifelong happiness as well as continued mental health and sharpness.

Which brings me to my topic – “Sharpening the Axe” – of late, I started taking guitar lessons again as part of my rededicated devotion and focus on playing my guitar (hence the “axe” reference) and music in 2014 that I shared in my post around the New Year.  Since the start of the year, musically anyway, I have …

– Rebuilt and reorganized my home-grown guitar songbook into something far more organized and scaleable.  I also printed 15 copies of it, with one designated as a gift for my pal Professor Troutstream, who is also getting his strum on again.

– Created a much more musically-inclined space for myself in our newly-remodeled basement, with all my guitar gear there, space to sit and play both by myself and with others, and also playing along with music on the surround sound stereo system down there.

– Bought one of my “dream guitars” – a candy-apple red Fender Stratocaster.  Now I’d love to say it’s an American Custom Shop Stratocaster that cost $2500 or more – nope, a Standard, built in Mexico. (For those that care about this stuff, maple neck, 50’s style headstock, three single coil standard pickups with a hot bridge pickup.) And red stratocasters have been played by my guitar idol/icons for ages – guys like Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, Joe Walsh, Stevie Ray Vaughn.  Looks perfect and plays like an absolute dream.  Best value in guitars around – great action, sound, sustain, etc.  Not sure why I waited so long to get this.  But I love it.  Here’s Pete with his:


And me with mine as I was unpacking it from the shipment box:



– And, in the last four weeks, I started back up with guitar lessons.

Over my lifetime, I’ve probably had 40 or so guitar lessons – I took guitar classes back in Jr. High from Mr. Elliott at Central  JH in Newton, IA – I think that was 7th and 8th grade.  Mr. Elliott taught me the basics but he also taught me to love the instrument and for that, I’m lifelong grateful to him.  After that, I took a handful of lessons here and there from various local folks, both officially and unofficially, and also my bandmates taught me stuff while I put down the rhythm with my bass guitar – amazing what you can learn just by watching.

About 15 years ago, when I picked guitar back up, I immediately started with lessons and quickly found that even though I was coming off a nearly 20-year hiatus from playing, that I was close to a better teacher than the teacher.  I gave that up, dabbled around in guitar books and such and online bits and pieces, then went through two more guitar teachers trying to find the right match.  One guy is a really accomplished Jazz teacher and well, he teaches Jazz guitar, which isn’t what I wanted, and another guy just really didn’t feel like much of a match.  A bigger issue is that I was struggling with articulating what I really wanted from this.

Finally, after thinking about it a lot, I figured it out – the handful of things I really wanted to learn were:

– finger style right hand picking on an acoustic guitar
– jazz and blues form rhythm guitar chord work and additional voicings and forms for chord work

But most important:

– how to solo as a blues and rock guitarist.

THAT, my friends is my holy grail.  I knew the basics – I had learned improvisation as a bass player back in high school at the hand of Mr. Omanson at Newton High Sschool.  It’s all just scales.  I even more or less knew several of the scales – minor and major pentatonics, minor and major straight scales, mixolydian scales, etc.  But I didn’t know how they translated to actually making a guitar solo sound good and sound coherent. Little things like root notes, bends, riffs, transitions from one pattern to the next, pattern extensions, etc.

I found a teacher near me by searching online, and read his website. Accomplished Blues and Rock player.  Good.  You Tube videos of his playing, great! Flexible schedules? Now we’re getting somewhere!  “I’ll teach you what you want to learn”.  Winner winner chicken dinner, ladies and gents!  I sent him an email describing my situation and he emailed right back – he thinks he could help – and the first lesson is free as he wanted to see if we had a match.

Well, happy to report we have a match. I learned more in that first 45 minute free session than I learned from all the guitar teachers I had since picking this back up.  I just had my third lesson last night and already he had me playing a solo over him playing along to a blues “jam track”.  DAMN!  Now this is progress!  I feel so energized by the learning, I’m having such a blast playing.  I play at least an hour a day as much as I can, and for the first time, I can hear the music in these scales. Blues songs are running on my mental iPod on a continuous 24 hour loop.

You know you’re primed for the learning experience when you can’t learn it fast enough.  That’s me right now.

Coming back to the central point and theme of the post here though – you’re never too old to pick up something and learn it.  Whether you’re just starting as a rank beginner, or you’re doing as I’m doing and going from a medium level to a more advanced level of knowledge or skill, there is no substitute for learning and for getting the learning from a competent educator or other source.  Your mind expands with every bit you learn.

Think about it.  What do you want to learn? Go learn it.

As you were,



You say you want a resolution …

1 Jan

So, New Year’s resolutions are something that we all know are just promises that we attempt to make to ourselves but ultimately wind up being lies. I’m sure there’s a real stat out there, but I’d put it at 90% or more that those that make resolutions don’t follow through on them more than a few weeks.

I was no different – every year I’d say “this is the year I lose 30 lbs.”, “this is the year I get more fit”, “this is the year I’ll start running again”, etc. We all know how all that went. Then in 2012, well, life intervened. My heart made the choice for me – I HAVE to make the physical changes and reduce my cardiac risks or .. well, let’s not talk alternatives as they are not pleasant. My career is in good order and progressing, financially, I could always be doing better, but we’re doing OK and that’s plenty good. So, what’s to “resolve”? (And don’t get me started on the word “resolve” … as it has so many possible meanings.

Clearly, I’m committed to exercise and eating better. The results are starting to become present, and well, that’s motivation enough to stay on the effort. That and the whole “dirt nap” thing. So that’s no “New Years resolution”. I am always, ALWAYS focused on trying to have fun, trying to do more with my family, keeping my priorities straight, etc. That motivation comes from far more than just one thing – although I will quote a plaque that my Grandma Mildred had hanging in her kitchen: “Don’t hurry, don’t worry, and don’t forget to smell the flowers.” Good words on those little plaques in Grandma’s kitchen.

And clearly, I don’t take myself too seriously. Anyone who buys a decommissioned ambulance and drives it around just for laughs, well, enough said.

So, what to do? Instead of resolutions about behavior, let’s make a list of accomplishments:

Here’s a simple list of things I want to accomplish in 2013. All of these are designed to make me happier. Not that I’m unhappy – quite the contrary – but we could all use a bit more happiness, right?

  • Learn to play “finger style” on my guitar. I was taught this in 8th grade, but that one-hour lesson didn’t seem to catch. I’ll spend more time and learn this.
  • Learn to play blues lead guitar solos on my guitar. I’ve just never spent enough time learning scale patterns and notes on the acoustic guitar fretboard. Time to get on that and learn it once and for all.
  • Finish replacing the woodwork in my house – right now half my house has 3″ stained baseboards and the rest has 5″white ones. Just gotta make the time. But once it’s done I’ll be very pleased with myself.
  • Brew more beer. Simple. And this one starts this weekend, I think. Let’s set the goal at 4 batches in 2013. I only brewed two in 2012 and those were two weeks apart. Weak.
  • Spend more time with people that make me happy. Trust me, this one is critical. Hard to put an accomplishment metric on it, but I’ll know when I’ve done it by the lower readings on “BS Meter” and the higher readings on my “Happy Meter”.
  • Go back to reading my paper magazines. I’m subscribed to about six magazines and I spend too much time with my iPad and don’t read them. Time to get back to something I enjoy.
  • Learn to cook at least six good Vegan/Vegetarian dishes. I cannot see myself ever becoming a vegan or vegetarian, but certainly eating more plant-based meals will add some range to my eating and I’ll enjoy the cooking challenge.
  • Ironically, in the opposite vein, read more books, a habit enabled by my iPad and the Kindle app. Easy enough to read on the train and eBooks don’t weigh anything.
  • Plant some trees in my yard. This is going to get very important later this spring – we have an Ash tree that’s owned by the city in our front yard. Buffalo Grove is killing every ash tree in town to combat Emerald Ash Borer. So … plant a few of my own. And not ashes.

I think that’s enough to lay out there. I’m sure other goals will come up. And of course, I have my professional goals that my company tracks.

So that’s the game. Keep exercising and eating better, take my meds, reduce my cardiac risk. Then focus on the things above that will help me be a happier guy.

Have a great 2013, y’all.

As you were,


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